Authorities in the eastern province of Zhejiang have detained a Catholic bishop, weeks after an agreement between Beijing and the Holy See aimed to unify the state-sponsored and Vatican-endorsed, underground churches in China.
Bishop Peter (in Italian, Pietro) Shao of Wenzhou, a Catholic bishop recognized by the Vatican but not by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, was taken from his home last Friday for "isolation and indoctrination," the Catholic Asianews.it website reported.
"Msgr. Pietro Shao Zhumin was kidnapped by police this morning at 9:00 a.m. and will be kept away from the diocese for '10 or 15 days'," the report said.
"Usually such forced seizures are defined by the police as "vacation periods." They are actually periods of interrogation and indoctrination," it said.
Bishop Shao's enforced disappearance comes just weeks after a controversial deal between the ruling Chinese Communist Party and the Vatican over the appointment of bishops, amid warnings that religious repression targeting unofficial churches would likely intensify.
The controversial deal eliminated the division between bishops and churches recognized by the government-backed Catholic Patriotic Association and those appointed by Rome, which will likely result in an expansion of the Catholic Church in China.
But rights groups and leading Catholics warned that religious persecution continues unabated under the administration of President Xi Jinping amid heavy-handed controls by religious affairs officials.
Under the agreement, Rome recognized seven bishops appointed by the Chinese state, and the agreement also saw the founding of a new Catholic diocese in Chengde, in the northern province of Hebei.
Bishop Shao, 54, has been repeatedly detained in the past two years since his consecration by Rome, most recently for seven months.
During that time, the authorities have put intense pressure on him to join Beijing's Catholic Patriotic Association, but he has repeatedly refused on the grounds that it doesn't conform to Catholic doctrine.
According to Asianews.it, the Catholic community in Wenzhou numbers around 130,000, more than 80,000 of whom are members of the "unofficial" church, while some 70 priests serve both communities.
"[Religious authorities have] stepped up controls and the persecution of underground communities, and reiterated in the meetings with the official clergy that the Chinese Church remains 'independent,' despite the agreement," the agency reported.
Calls to the religious and minorities affairs bureau of Leqing municipal government, where Shao is resident, went unconnected during office hours on Thursday.
Xu Yonghai, an elder of the Beijing Protestant house church Christian Saints Love Fellowship, said the Chinese government is suppressing religious organizations on an ever-widening scale, as the ranks of Chinese religious believers continue to expand.
He said the Vatican had likely sacrificed religious freedom in its efforts to make a deal with Beijing.
"The Pope doesn't really understand what China is actually like, and believes that the situation for religious believers will become more relaxed now that the agreement has been signed, allowing the Catholic Church to grow further," Xu said. "But that's not the case."
"Their ideology and world view mean that they don't understand us, and they just want to suppress religion," he said. "I think one of the reasons is that they can't allow any organization to exist if they can't control it."
Professor Chang Chia Lin of Taiwan's Aletheia University said the Sino-Vatican agreement would likely make life harder for members of the "unofficial" Catholic Church loyal to Rome.
"The underground church has been forced above ground since the Vatican showed it was willing to sign an agreement with the Chinese Communist Party," Chang told RFA. "That makes it much easier to control, so that activities that used to happen without much difficulty because they were invisible ... have been brought to the surface."
"I think things are going to get very difficult for the underground church in future," he said.
Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.