An underground Catholic bishop in China has died at the age of 94, 14 years after his 'disappearance' at the hands of authorities, a Catholic news website and a religious rights activist said.
Bishop Cosmas Shi Enxiang of Yi county in Hebei province was arrested on Good Friday, 2001, at a relative's home in Beijing, and had been held without charge at an unknown location since then, the UCANews website said.
Joseph Kung, spokesman for the U.S.-based Cardinal Kung Foundation, said the family had been trying to discover Shi's whereabouts for years.
"Bishop Shi has been disappeared for 14 years, and neither we nor his family knew where he was being held," Kung told RFA.
He said authorities in Hebei's provincial capital Baoding had only informed the family of Shi's death.
"[Then] the Baoding authorities informed his relatives that he had died, but the family still doesn't know where his remains are, nor his personal effects," Kung said.
According to the bishop's great-niece Shi Chunyan, the family was wasn't told exactly when or how Shi died, UCANews reported.
A Beijing-based underground church member, who gave only his surname Ding, said Shi had been persecuted by the authorities because he wasn't a member of the China's ruling Communist Party-approved China Patriotic Catholic Association, which doesn't recognize the authority of the Vatican.
"He was held for a very long time, and died in jail in his nineties," Ding said. "I think this is very inhumane, and it makes one very angry."
"It's a typical example of China's track record on religious freedom," he said.
Officially an atheist country, China has an army of officials whose job is to watch over faith-based activities, which have spread rapidly in recent decades amid sweeping economic and social change.
Party officials are put in charge of Catholics, Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, and Protestants. Judaism isn't recognized, and worship in non-recognized temples, churches, or mosques is against the law.
Ding said China has a huge state "machinery" dedicated to ensuring its religious believers toe the party line.
"The older generation of religious leaders in particular spent a much longer time in jail," he said.
He said China's underground Catholics were forced to be more secretive in their activities because they retain allegiance to the Pope, regarded by Beijing as a foreign power with no say in its internal affairs.
"I think there's a lot that the rest of the world doesn't even know about the oppression directed at them by the Communist Party, since it came to power," Ding said.
"I think it's very widespread, deep and dark, and we shall see if people can expose more of it," he said.
Shi Chunyan told UCANews that his family had taken the news of his death very hard.
"My parents and the bishop's other siblings are particularly sad," she said.
"They had been unsuccessfully trying to discover his whereabouts for many years. Now the answer to their questions is that he is dead," she said.
Shi, a native of the northern province of Hebei, was hailed by some in online comments as "a martyr of the Church," UCANews reported.
Meanwhile, city authorities are also holding Catholic bishop James Su of Baoding at an unknown location, after he 'disappeared' in October 1997, Kung said.
"In a similar manner to Shi, Bishop Su has been held [for 18 years], and the outside world has no idea what has become of him," Kung said.
"They were both detained because they maintained their allegiance to the Vatican, and they refused to join the patriotic association."
According to UCANews, four of Su's relatives were detained by the authorities at a Baoding guesthouse last week for three days after they tried to demand information from Yu Zhengsheng, a member of China's all-powerful Politburo standing committee, who spoke to Catholic church leaders in Baoding on a visit at the end of January.
Bishop Shi was born in 1921 and ordained a priest in 1947, two years before the Communist Party founded the People's Republic of China.
He had served a number of lengthy jail sentences between the "anti-rightist" campaigns and Cultural Revolution (1966-1967), much of it hard labor at a camp in the northwestern province of Heilongjiang and in coal-mines in the northern province of Shanxi, UCANews said.
"He was secretly ordained Auxiliary Bishop of [Yi county] in 1982 and became the ordinary in 1995 after his predecessor Bishop Liu Guandong retired," the agency said.
He was re-detained twice during the 1980s and 1990s, before his last arrest on April 13, 2001.
China's officially sanctioned Catholic Church has between five and six million members, while an underground church loyal to Rome has an estimated 10 million followers.
In December 2012, China stripped a Shanghai bishop of his title after he outraged officials by resigning from the state-approved Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.
Rev. Thaddeus Ma Daqin has reportedly been held in a seminary since he resigned from the association on July 7 in front of a packed church in Shanghai during what was supposed to be his consecration as an auxiliary bishop, a position he had been named to in a rare consensus between Beijing and the Vatican.
His move was widely understood as a protest against the party's political control over Catholics in China.
Reported by Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Lin Yuetong and Luo Bote for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.