THE head of the underground Catholic Church in Shanghai has died, aged 97, after decades of imprisonment and house arrest.
Bishop Joseph Fan Zhong-liang died in his apartment in the company of priests and others following a brief illness.
The United States-based Kung Foundation said officials in Shanghai, China’s financial hub, had turned down a request to hold his funeral at the city’s cathedral and would permit only a small service at a funeral home.
The Beijing regime broke ties with the Vatican in 1951. Relations have improved in recent years as the country’s Catholic population grows, but they remain at odds over which has the authority to ordain priests.
China’s officially atheist rulers reject the Vatican’s insistence on the right to appoint bishops.
Mr Fan was appointed Shanghai bishop by Pope John Paul II in 2000 but was refused recognition by the Communist Party-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA), which oversees the church in China. He was immediately put under house arrest and another priest, Aloysius Jin Luxian, was named bishop.
Bishop Jin’s successor, Thaddeus Ma Daqin, has not been seen in public since being taken into custody in 2012 after declaring his withdrawal from CPA at his ordination ceremony, shocking and angering officials. He is believed to be held at Shanghai’s Sheshan Seminary.
Beijing later rescinded Bishop Ma’s appointment, but the Kung Foundation said Bishop Fan’s death had reinforced the need for his release and return to pastoral duties, a move that would unite the government-approved and underground congregations.
“As both Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian and Bishop Joseph Fan Zhongliang are deceased, the Cardinal Kung Foundation appeals to the Chinese government to release Bishop Ma immediately so that the Catholic Diocese of Shanghai will have a bishop to lead their ministry,” the Kung group said. “By reinstating Bishop Ma to his rightful office, China will be taking an important step forward in honouring religious freedom, a right that is guaranteed by the Chinese constitution.”
China has between eight million and 12 million Catholics, half of whom worship in congregations outside the control of the CPA.
Anthony Lam, a senior researcher at the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong said: “They [the Chinese authorities] carried out a certain kind of house arrest to prevent [Bishop Fan] from having much contact with the outside world, including Catholics in Shanghai.”
He said his successor was likely to face the same fight in the pursuit of religious freedom.
“At this moment, Bishop Ma Daqin is the highest-ranking church person in Shanghai, but whether he will be the ordained bishop is awaiting the decision of the Holy See,” Mr Lam said.
“Even if the Holy See assigns him as the ordained bishop, he will still have to fight for his complete freedom.”
Born in 1918, Mr Fan was baptised a Catholic in 1932 and ordained a Jesuit priest in 1951, two years after the Communists seized power. Arrested in 1955 after Communist leader Mao Zedong ordered Chinese Catholics to cut all ties with the Vatican, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for counter-revolutionary crimes and forced to work at a labour camp mortuary in a remote western province.
After finishing his sentence, Mr Fan was assigned to teach at a school for the children of party officials. He was permitted to return to Shanghai in 1985.
One online tribute read: “A true giant of faith! He fought this battle for happiness his whole life.”