New York Times
September 18, 2000

China Is Said to Rearrest Bishop Released for Clinton's '98 Visit

By ERIK ECKHOLM

BEIJING, Sept. 17 An 81-year- old Roman Catholic bishop in southern China, who spent a total of more than 30 years in prison for his loyalty to the Vatican, was rearrested last week, a Catholic foundation in the United States said today.

The latest arrest of Bishop Zeng Jingmu of Jiangxi Province is a particular setback for the Clinton administration and a slap in the face for the Vatican.

In early 1998, as President Clinton prepared to visit China, American officials sought Bishop Zeng's early release from a labor camp, where he had been sent in 1995 for holding unauthorized religious services. When he was freed in May 1998, six months before his three-year sentence expired, President Clinton and other officials called his release a hopeful sign that Mr. Clinton's policy of constructive engagement with China was "bearing fruit," in the words of James R. Sasser, then the American ambassador to China.

Since his release, Bishop Zeng, who is described as frail by associates, has reportedly been kept under virtual house arrest, with tight police surveillance. But at midnight last Thursday, close to 60 security agents surrounded the bishop's house, entered it and seized him, said Joseph Kung, head of the Cardinal Kung Foundation in Stamford, Conn., which publicizes the persecution of China's so-called underground church.

Mr. Kung said in an interview that Bishop Zeng's associates had not yet been told why he was taken in. But Mr. Kung speculated that it was because of his continued intransigent stand against cooperating with the government-allied church. His foundation has reported the detentions or beatings of several other pro-Vatican priests in the last few months.

The arrest report coincided with the publicized visit to China by a high Vatican official. Cardinal Roger Etchegaray's attendance at a religious conference in Beijing last week had been widely interpreted as indicating a slight thaw in relations between China and the Vatican.

Since he was ordained as a priest in 1949, the year the Communists won power in China, Bishop Zeng has been one of the most steadfast opponents of the official "patriotic" church, which accepts the supremacy of the Communist Party and rejects the Pope's right to select bishops. Between 1955 and 1995, according to the Kung Foundation, he spent 30 years in prison. In the early 1990's, he became known for offering huge open-air Masses on a mountaintop, attended by tens of thousands of worshipers until the authorities clamped down.

The official church has about 70 bishops and claims five million members, while Vatican officials say that from five million to ten million Chinese follow the unauthorized Roman Catholic Church. In some regions, the two groups coexist, if uneasily, and many priests privately admit to having divided loyalties. But in regions with high concentrations of Catholics, relations between the government and the underground church are tense, according to the United States State Department's Sept. 5 report on religious freedom.

On Aug. 16, 1999, the Central Committee of the ruling Communist Party issued a document "calling on the authorities to tighten control of the official Catholic Church and to eliminate the underground Catholic Church if it does not bend to government control," according to the State Department report.

The Vatican and China broke off relations in the early 1950's over issues of papal authority and religious freedom.

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company