BEIJING — A Roman Catholic bishop held in jail by the Chinese authorities for more than 10 years has been released, support groups overseas say, raising hopes for reconciliation talks between Beijing and the Vatican.
An Shuxin, an auxiliary bishop in Hebei province in northern China, was detained in 1996. Since then, as with several other bishops appointed by the pope without Beijing’s approval, no news had been released about where he was being held or his condition.
The Vatican and the Communist government in Beijing do not recognize each other, but there have been on-off negotiations between the two sides since shortly before the death of Pope John Paul II last year.
“We hope that this release is not an isolated case, but rather the beginning of the release of many dozens of other Roman Catholic bishops, priests and faithful currently being jailed by the authorities across China,” the Cardinal Kung Foundation, a U.S.-based support group, said.
Hebei has the highest concentration of Roman Catholics in China and is feared by the Chinese government for that reason.
Bishop An was one of seven bishops in the province imprisoned for refusing to register with the official Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. He ran an underground seminary in Baoding, a city a few hours’ drive south of Beijing, where he was detained in May 1996.
According to AsiaNews, a Catholic news Web site, Bishop An had been a subject in negotiations between Vatican and Beijing representatives, with a compromise worked out whereby the government would recognize his position without his having to register with the association.
There was no confirmation of this report.
“I wouldn’t dare to speculate,” said the foundation’s Joseph Kung. “It’s so secret. Everything is going on behind the scenes.”
He confirmed, however, that the bishop had been given a work permit to carry on his pastoral mission without having to register.
“He is still closely watched by the government,” Mr. Kung said. “But this is a milestone, an important issue that he does not have to register.”
A delegation of Vatican representatives was in Beijing for talks in June.
In particular, they were seeking to prevent a repetition of what were seen as provocative acts by the association when it ordained two bishops who had not been approved by Rome at a time when both sides had been apparently seeking reconciliation.
The ordination may itself have been retribution for the elevation to cardinal of Bishop Joseph Zen of Hong Kong, who has been both an outspoken critic of the Communist Party and a leading supporter of pro-democracy activists in the territory.