Bishops loyal to the Pope forced to take part in state-run assembly while others go into hiding to avoid arrest

Relations between China and the Vatican are in danger of disintegrating after authorities forced bishops loyal to the Pope to attend a meeting of the state-run Church.

Dozens of Chinese bishops were taken to Beijing against their will to take part in the National Congress of Chinese Catholic Representatives to vote for new leaders of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and the Council of Chinese Bishops.

The latter group acts as China’s bishops’ conference but is state-imposed and is not in full communion with the Church. Pope Benedict XVI has said both groups have a purpose which is “incompatible with Catholic doctrine”.

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China’s National Congress of Catholics has not met for four years because of opposition from bishops obedient to the Holy See.

Although some bishops went willingly to the meeting, which took place at the beginning of the week, AsiaNews, a news agency which has sources on the ground, reported that others suffered from forceful abductions. A number of bishops have also disappeared to avoid arrest and forcible transfer to the event.

Bishop Feng Xinmao of Hengshui, a city in the province of Hebei, was taken by a group of about 100 police officers and state agents who fought against priests and faithful who were trying to free him. The bishop, who had been held in isolation for some days previously, was rescued from police custody by the faithful before being re-arrested and taken to Beijing on Monday after a siege which lasted several hours.

Another bishop from the same region, Bishop Li Lianghui Cangzhou, has gone into hiding to avoid attending the Beijing meeting. The police threatened his diocese, saying that it would hunt the bishop “like a dangerous criminal” if he refused to give himself up.

During the Beijing meeting this week state-backed bishops were expected to vote on the national president of the Patriotic Association as well as the president of the official bishops’ conference. The assembly represents the “sovereign body” of the official Church, in which bishops are only a minority among lay people and government officials who make ecclesial decisions. Elections are rigged and participants in the conference are told what to do and who to vote for in advance by the Patriotic Association assembly chairman Liu Bainian.

The action by the authorities came just days after Pope Benedict called for prayers for the Church in China, saying Chinese Catholics were “going through a particularly difficult time”.

He said: “We ask the Blessed Virgin Mary, Help of Christians, to sustain all the Chinese bishops. We also entrust to the Virgin Mary all the Catholics of that beloved country, that, through her intercession, they may be able to live an authentic Christian life in communion with the universal church, contributing in this way also to the harmony and common good of their noble people.”

Relations between the underground Church and the official church appeared to be improving until the end of last month when the state church went ahead with installing Fr Joseph Guo Jincai as Bishop of Chengde, also in Hebei province. Eight loyal bishops were forced to attend the ceremony while the Vatican condemned the action, saying that it constituted a “a painful wound upon ecclesial communion and a grave violation of Catholic discipline”. It was the first unsanctioned ordination since 2006 and represents a breach in ongoing negotiations in the uneasy relationship between the Vatican and the Communist regime.

Pope Benedict, in a 2007 letter to Chinese Catholics, indicated a willingness to negotiate with the state.

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