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China frees Vatican-affiliated Chinese bishop: sources

A Catholic worshipper holds a cross during an Ash Wednesday mass at Beijing’s government-sanctioned South Cathedral in February/AFP-File

BEIJING, China, Mar 28 – Chinese police have released an underground bishop after holding him for a day, sources told AFP on Wednesday, as Beijing and the Vatican prepare to seal a historic agreement on the appointment of prelates.

Vincent Guo Xijin, bishop of the diocese of Mindong in the southeastern province of Fujian, was at the centre of the controversial deal after being urged by the Vatican to step aside for a prelate recognised by China’s Communist government.

He was detained on Monday, a Catholic source close to the matter told AFP, though it was not clear why.

“He has returned home. He was taken away on Monday evening and returned on Tuesday evening,” the source said, requesting anonymity to avoid repercussions.

An Amnesty International researcher in Hong Kong, Patrick Poon, also cited sources as saying Guo was released after being held for “talks”.

The detention was first reported on Tuesday by AsiaNews, which is run by the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions.

The AsiaNews report said Guo was detained along with another official of the diocese. The status of the second official is unclear.

Contacted by AFP, both the local Chinese police and the Fujian provincial office of religious affairs said they were unaware of the arrests. The Vatican has not commented on it.

Beijing and the Vatican severed diplomatic relations in 1951 and although ties have improved as China’s Catholic population grows, they have remained at odds over the appointment of bishops.

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China’s roughly 12 million Catholics are divided between a government-run association, whose clergy are chosen by the Communist Party, and an unofficial church which swears allegiance to the Vatican.

The situation is complex because the Vatican has previously accepted several bishops appointed by Beijing, officially an atheist regime.

Guo, 59, is recognised by the Vatican but not by the Chinese authorities.

He was recently urged by the Vatican to step aside for Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu and to accept being demoted to auxiliary bishop, as part of preparations for the agreement.

According to Catholics consulted by AsiaNews, the disappearance of the bishop of Mindong can be explained by his refusal to celebrate Easter with the prelate who will replace him.

The site also reported that this same bishop disappeared for 20 days last year.

Asked about Guo’s arrest, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said he was not aware of the situation.

But, he added, the “Chinese government fully respects and protects, according to the law, the rights of religious belief and freedom of its citizens”.

Poon said the Chinese government must urgently explain why Guo was held.

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“What is meant by ‘talks’ in the Communist Chinese context is always about detention and threats unless the government can really explain why Bishop Guo was required to attend the ‘talks’,” Poon told AFP.

According to information from the French daily La Croix published Monday, a Chinese delegation is expected in Rome this week.

Lu said he had no information but said that China “is always sincere towards improving its relations with Vatican” and willing to meet it “half-way”.

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