SHANGHAI, JAN. 9 -- Making his first statement to the outside world after nearly 30 years in prison and more than two years on parole, Shanghai's former Roman Catholic bishop, Ignatius Kung, today said he remains loyal to the Vatican.
The best known of hundreds of priests who were persecuted by the Communists in the 1950s, Kung became a symbol of resistance to Communist authority. He was believed to have been under heavy pressure during his long years in prison to renounce his loyalty to the Vatican in exchange for his freedom.
Catholic sources in Hong Kong said Kung's recent release from parole could improve the chances that the Vatican and China will eventually renew long-severed ties.
In an interview, the 87-year-old bishop said he was in good health and had been released from prison in 1985 because he is not opposed to the Chinese government.
But Kung made it clear that he has refused to associate himself with the Chinese government-sponsored Patriotic Catholic Association, which has long had no ties with the Vatican.
Asked if he still respected the infallibility of the pope, Kung said, "If I didn't believe in that, I wouldn't be a Catholic."
Kung spoke to reporters from The Washington Post and Sydney Morning Herald through an interpreter provided by the Shanghai city government's foreign affairs office.
Kung was arrested in 1955 on charges of high treason and sentenced five years later to life imprisonment as a "counterrevolutionary." He was accused of opposing China's land reform program and participation in the Korean War.
When he was released on parole in July 1985, Kung was reported by Chinese officials to have repented of his past "crimes." He was released from parole last Tuesday.
Asked today if he was freed from prison because he expressed repentance over his opposition to sending Catholics to fight in Korea, Kung said, "It had nothing to do with that."
But the bishop clearly did not want to discuss controversial issues, and cut off the interview after 10 minutes, saying he was too tired.
Dressed in a simple traditional dark blue cotton tunic, he walked slowly to the interview with the help of a cane. He wore a black cotton hat and cotton padded shoes.
Considering his many years in prison, he appeared to be in fairly good health. A church official said he had a minor heart complaint and a slight hearing problem.
But he was strong enough to spend an hour today traveling to a Catholic church 18 miles away on the southwest outskirts of Shanghai, the official said. A physician accompanied him on the trip.
Yuan Shaosheng, director of the Shanghai Catholic diocese, said Kung rose at 5 each day and said a private mass at 5:30 a.m. in a chapel called the Good Shepherd's Chapel.
The church official said Kung spent the day reading the Bible and saying prayers.
Three times a day, he practised taijichuan, the Chinese art of shadow boxing, which is a popular exercise among the elderly.
Yuan said Kung lives together with three other bishops in the Shanghai bishop's residence. Kung said he had a room of his own.
There was no time to ask Kung what had sustained him for so many years in prison or about other Catholic priests who remain in prison.
Catholic sources in Hong Kong estimate that more than 50 lay Catholics and priests are still being held in prisons.
Some of them were apparently arrested because they maintained their loyalty to the pope and refused to submit to the authority of the Patriotic Catholic Association.
One bishop who remained loyal to the Vatican, Joseph Fan Xueyan, now 79, was accused of ordaining priests in secret.
In 1984, he was sent to prison for 10 years and two Catholic news agencies reported last year that he is in ill health.
Yuan, who is an adherent of the Patriotic Catholic Association, said Bishop Kung has had no contact with the Vatican. When Kung was released from prison in 1985, Chinese officials said he had promised to establish no such contact.
Kung said he had more than 20 relatives in the United States and apparently plans to visit them.
Yuan said Kung's release from prison and from parole had nothing to do with trying to establish relations with the Vatican.
But Father Louis Ha, a Roman Catholic spokesman in Hong Kong, said earlier this week in a telephone interview that he considered the release from parole to be "a very positive sign of friendship" on the part of the Chinese government.
"It might also be a sign of a more open policy toward religious freedom," said Ha, who is director of the Hong Kong Catholic Social Communications Office.
Western diplomats said the main obstacle to a renewal of ties between China and the Vatican was the Vatican's insistence on its right to choose bishops. Beijing has in the past also insisted that the Vatican cut its links with Taiwan.
But a Catholic monthly magazine reported from Vatican City Friday that Beijing is ready to drop its demand that the Vatican break relations with Taiwan.
It said Communist Party Chief Zhao Ziyang conveyed Beijing's change of position to Manila Archbishop Cardinal Jaime Sin when Sin visited Beijing last November.
Sin is reported by some sources to have seen Bishop Kung during that visit but he was not allowed to visit priests who are still in prison.
The official Chinese Catholic Patriotic Church claims to have 3 million members. But foreign sources estimate there may be many more Catholics who maintain a secret loyalty to the Vatican.