China detains defiant Catholic bishop


Two men stand inside the Sheshan Catholic Church in Shanghai on July 10, 2012. Thaddeus Ma Daqin, a Chinese priest who publicly quit the state-sanctioned Catholic Church, was taken away by officials last weekend. (ALY SONG/REUTERS)
July 10, 2012

Tensions between Beijing and the Vatican are mounting after Chinese authorities detained an outspoken Catholic bishop who has defied state control of the church, a move that highlights the Communist Party’s deep mistrust of religious organizations.

Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin was whisked away just hours after he announced his resignation from the leadership of the Patriotic Catholic Association, or PCA, the government body that controls China’s state-sanctioned version of the Catholic Church, according to two people close to the PCA.

Ma, whose ordination had been supported by both Beijing and the Vatican, made the announcement during his ordination ceremony on Saturday in the St. Ignatius Cathedral in Shanghai.

In a snub to the authorities, he said he would immediately quit his duties in the association to focus on his new role as auxiliary bishop of Shanghai, one of the largest dioceses in China.

The Vatican bars its clergy from holding political office, but many senior clergy in China simultaneously serve in the church and in the PCA.

When Ma came to speak, he faced the congregation, gave remarks of thanks and spiritual mediation, and then delivered his surprise conclusion, according to video footage of the events.

“At this time I’ve been reflecting on what our loving mother church reminded me, once you assume your pastoral job . . . your body and heart should be completely focused on pastoral things and evangelization. It is not appropriate to assume other duties anymore. So, from the moment of today’s ordination, it is not appropriate for me to be a member of the Patriotic Association anymore,” he said.

The congregation broke out in loud applause.

Shortly after, Ma was taken to a seminary near Shanghai in the town of Sheshan, according to two people who described the events on the condition of anonymity, and he has not appeared in public since. Two employees of the state-run church said that Ma was in “closed meditation” and that they did not know when this might end.

The Vatican issued a statement Tuesday welcoming Ma’s ordination but did not mention his confinement. It also renewed its call for Beijing to end its practice of unilaterally ordaining what it describes as “illicit” bishops.

Relations between the Vatican and China, home to millions of Catholics, have been souring since late 2010, when Beijing unilaterally ordained a bishop who was not approved by the Vatican.

Since then, China has continued to appoint bishops against the wishes of the Vatican, most recently last week. The Vatican views these bishops as illegitimate because they do not have the pope’s blessing.

Beijing’s attitude toward organizations of all faiths has been hardening over the past several years, particularly as the leadership transition approaches.

Protestant churches in private houses in Beijing have been raided and their pastors detained. More than 20 Catholic clergy are thought to be in prison because of their affiliation with the underground church, according to a senior church member.

The Communist Party has long viewed organized religion as a threat to its grip on power, and Beijing has attempted to co-opt the practice of faith by incorporating the five recognized religions — Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam and Daoism — into the State Administration for Religious Affairs.

China’s official Catholic and Protestant churches are often hung with banners reading “Love God, love your country,” and the state is in charge of appointing religious staff and approving church expansions.

Many Chinese Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, eschew the state-controlled churches, instead worshiping in unofficial churches that are often run in homes or rented spaces. While China’s official statistics report only 28 million Christians, estimates from within the church range as high as 80 million.

— Financial Times

Gwen Chen in Beijing, Enid Tsui in Macau and Guy Dinmore in Rome contributed to this report.

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