Bishop Joseph Zhang Weizhu’s whereabouts are still unknown months after Chinese officials detained him with clergy and seminarians who object to joining the Chinese government’s official Catholic organization.

Bishop Zhang, 63, has been Bishop of Xinxiang in China’s Hebei province since 1991. He is recognized by the Holy See but not the Chinese government. There are some 100,000 Catholics in his diocese, UCA News reports.

Some 100 policemen took part in May 20-21 operations against the bishop and other clergy who refuse to follow China’s new regulations allowing religious activities only in organizations registered with and controlled by the government.

One raid targeted the seminary in Cangzhou, hosted in a small factory building owned by a Catholic. Police reportedly arrested ten priests, including professors and those involved in pastoral work, and ten seminarians. Three students escaped from the seminary raid but were later arrested. 

The seminarians were released to their families but forbidden to continue their theology studies. 

Both the bishop and the clergy were put through political education sessions. Though the clergy were later released, the fate of Bishop Zhang is unclear.

China’s new rules governing religion took effect in May, according to UCA News. Catholic bishops must be approved and ordained by the state-backed Chinese Catholic Bishops’ Conference. Clergy must support the leadership of the Communist Party and must regularly seek recertification to continue their pastoral work. Clergy may run religious activities, including seminaries, only in government-registered and government-controlled institutions

Previously, Bishop Zhang has been arrested and released several times for allegedly violating Chinese law. He has been barred from overseeing his diocese’s finances and resources. In 2010, the government appointed an administrator to oversee the diocese and to report to state authorities.

Authorities have also shut down Catholic schools and kindergartens in Xinxiang in the last year because of a ban on education by religious groups.

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Bishop Zhang’s diocese was created before the proclamation of the People’s Republic of china. It was never recognized by the state-aligned bishops’ conference and the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, UCA News reports.

A July 22 report in the publication Bitter Winter analyzed the arrests in the context of conscientious objection.

“The Vatican does not encourage in any way conscientious objection, but it has repeatedly stated that conscientious objectors remain Catholics in good standing, and it hopes they may be treated ‘with respect’ by the Chinese authorities,” said the report. “Instead, they are sent to jail.”

Bitter Winter is a publication of the Turin-based Center for Studies on New Religions that focuses on religious freedom and human rights, both in China and around the world. The report on China was authored by Wu Xiuying, who uses a pseudonym “for security reasons.”

Conscientious objection has become a significant phenomenon, the report said, quoting an unnamed priest in Henan province who said, “We do not see any positive result of the Vatican agreement.”

“We pray for the Pope every day, but believe he has received false information about China. We will not join the Patriotic Association,” said the priest.

In the view of the Bitter Winter report, the recent events were motivated by officials’ belief that manifestations of religious dissent should disappear amid preparations for the July 1 centenary of the Chinese Communist Party.

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A July 15 report from Asia News, a publication of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, said the bishop’s arrest is “a further demonstration that the agreement between the Vatican and China on the appointment of bishops has not changed the past dynamics, with the Chinese Communist Party continuing to tightly control the activities of religious personnel.”

Asia News said the Catholic faithful have circulated a prayer to God for Bishop Zhang. It reads, in part: “We pray that you will give him the strength and courage to face the difficulties encountered during his ministry; we pray that you will give him physical and inner peace. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who is God, and lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever.”

Bishop Zhang’s cause has global support.

In June, Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort of Reims, president of the French bishops’ conference, voiced “deep concern” about the arrests of Bishop Zhang, the other clergy, and the seminarians. 

The archbishop sent “the fraternal greetings of the Catholics of France” to Bishop Zhang and the other detainees, calling the imprisonment “a particularly harsh and unjust test,” UCA News reports.

Katharina Wenzel-Teuber, editor of the Germany-based church-run publication China Today, said communist authorities previously tolerated clergy who were not officially recognized by the government, but authorities are increasingly cracking down.

“Since the new decree came into force on May 1, priests who were members of the Chinese underground church are under great pressure to register with the official, state-recognized patriotic church,” she told the German Catholic news agency KNA. 

In October 2020, the Vatican and China renewed their provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops for another two years. 

On July 28 Anthony Li Hui became the fifth bishop to be consecrated under the 2018 Vatican-China deal. Pope Francis had named him coadjutor bishop of the Diocese of Pingliang in north-central China, whose wider metro population numbers over 2 million people.

Bishop Li, 49, is the former secretary of the state-sanctioned Chinese bishops’ conference.

Critics of the agreement argue that it represents a betrayal of “underground” Catholics who have remained loyal to the pope despite persecution. They claim the agreement has prevented the Vatican from denouncing flagrant human rights abuses in China.

In an Oct. 3 speech in Milan, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin defended the agreement as “only a starting point” for better relations. He said critics have misunderstood it and attribute incorrect objectives to it. The agreement “concerns exclusively the appointment of bishops.” Acknowledging many other problems facing the more than 10 million Catholics in the country, he said “it has not been possible to address them all together and we know that the road to full normalization will still be a long one, as Benedict XVI predicted in 2007.”

 An agreement on appointments was vital to avert further illicit episcopal consecrations, the cardinal said, explaining that the Vatican decided "to confront and resolve this delicate problem once and for all." 

 The pastoral goal, he continued, was "to help the local Churches to enjoy conditions of greater freedom, autonomy and organization, so that they can dedicate themselves to the mission of proclaiming the Gospel and contributing to the integral development of the person and society."