WASHINGTON—Authorities in the northern Chinese province of Hebei have arrested seven unofficial Catholic priests, less than a week after Beijing said it was ready to improve ties with the Vatican following the election of Pope Benedict XVI, a U.S.-based rights group said.
The seven priests were arrested Wednesday in Wuqiu village, near Jinzhou city, the Cardinal Kung Foundation said in a statement.
They were detained by a troop of police and security officers, including officials of the Shijiazhuang municipal religious affairs bureau, while on their way to a religious retreat conducted by Bishop Jia Zhiguo, the statement said.
"It is quite obvious that the desire expressed by the Chinese government to improve its relationship with the Vatican is less than sincere," it quoted spokesman Joseph Kung as saying. Read the full statement here.
After so many years of communism, religion has pretty much disappeared in China.
"They weren't doing any political activities," Kung said in a later interview with RFA's Mandarin service, adding that China's main issue with its Catholics was over papal authority, which Beijing could not accept over its Catholic citizens.
"There are a lot of issues that the Chinese government doesn't want the Vatican to do," Kung said.
Beijing currently permits around 5 million officially sponsored Catholics to worship openly under approved clergy and bishops, but many more are believed to worship covertly in underground churches throughout the country.
The Communist Party has replaced the Vatican as the arbiter of religious practice and doctrine for China's Catholics, but foreign ministry officials said last week that Beijing would be open to establishing ties with the Vatican following the election of Pope Benedict XVI.
Re-establishing ties would require the Vatican to sever its links with Taiwan, where Catholics worship freely, and agreeing "not to interfere in China's internal affairs," officials said.
It is quite obvious that the desire expressed by the Chinese government to improve its relationship with the Vatican is less than sincere.
But critics say the Communist Party is unlikely to allow meaningful ties between the Vatican and Chinese Catholics.
"After so many years of communism, religion has pretty much disappeared in China," Xian-based human rights activist Fu Shen told RFA's Mandarin service.
"What do you do to try to propitiate the things that can't be fixed by science? You use imagination. This process gives birth to a religious sense in people," Fu said.
"But in China such things are suppressed. You are not allowed to imagine such things. You are only allowed to believe in communism. Anything else is forbidden."
Original reporting in Mandarin by Yang Jiadai. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and produced for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie.