(AsiaNews) – Very “dangerous.” Very “worrying”: This is how Hebei Catholics comment on the attitude of the Beijing authorities surrounding the death of Bishop Cosma Shi Enxiang (師恩祥), ascertained on 30 January, but retracted a few days ago. The family of the prelate – who disappeared in police custody in April 2001 – are still waiting to be handed over his body or at least his ashes.
Msgr. Shi, 93, underground bishop of Yixian (易縣) (Hebei Province) was arrested April 13, 2001, a Friday, in the home of his niece in Beijing and held in an unknown location without trial or charge. In all these years family members regularly asked authorities for some news of their relative, but they never got any response. On January 30, an employee of the city of Baoding, the village chief of Shizhuang, questioned again by family, let slip that the bishop had died.
Speaking to UCANews agency, the niece of the bishop, Shi Chunyan, said: “We are now waiting for the prelate, whether it be his body or ashes, to be returned to Shizhuang, our hometown, before we decide what to do next.” To date, however, the corpse of the bishop has not been handed over.
Meanwhile, across China news of the death of Msgr. Shi Enxiang has spread, mourned as a “martyr” and as “a saint”, who has spent more than half his life in prison because of his fidelity to the Catholic faith and to his bond with the Pope. The Catholics of Yixian had been discussing how to organize the funeral which would have been attended by thousands of people across the country.
Then, there was a turn of events a few days ago. Since there seemed to be a delay in the return of the corpse (or ashes) of the bishop, the family members of the deceased went to find out more from the Baoding council, which replied that it knew nothing about the death of Msgr. Shi and that “the village mayor [who broke the news of the death] was drunk, or heard or understand wrong.”
BISHOPS, DEATHS AND TORTURE
The authorities’ “denial” of Msgr. Shi’s death, together with the hijacking of his corpse, have led Catholics to a series of assumptions. The most accepted one is that the government is afraid of the faithful’s reaction to the death of a bishop during 14 years of unmotivated imprisonment, since there was no trial or judgment.
Over the years, other underground bishops – not recognized by the government – have suffered the same fate as Msgr. Shi.
In 2005, Msgr. John Gao Kexian, Bishop of Yantai (Shandong) died after five years of detention in police custody. Family members were denied an autopsy on the corpse, to know the cause of death because the bishop was immediately cremated and buried, without the participation of family members or of the faithful. Again, the rumors about the death of the bishop circulated for months until they were confirmed.
In 2007, Msgr. John Han Dingxian, Bishop of Yongnian (Hebei), died after two years of isolation in the hands of the police. Again the family were denied an autopsy because a few hours after the announced death, the bishop was cremated and the ashes buried in a public cemetery, without any religious ceremony.
The faithful fear that Msgr. Shi, now very old, died of starvation or torture, as is suspected for the deaths of all these underground bishops.
The faithful recall the case of Msgr. Liu Difen, underground bishop of Anguo (Hebei), who died in 1992, after a period spent in prison. Police had warned the family to go to visit him at the hospital because the bishop was “very sick”. Immediately after the visit, the bishop died. His body was returned to relatives and these, preparing the body for the funeral, realized that the body of the bishop had “two holes in his back, be enough to fit your finger: a sign that he had been tortured.”
However the most similar case to that of Msgr. Cosma Shi Enxiang is the story of Msgr. Joseph Fan Xueyan, bishop of Baoding (Hebei). Arrested for a few months in 1992, his body was returned to the family, left on the doorstep of their home, wrapped in a plastic bag. The body of the elderly prelate showed signs of torture around his neck (perhaps a wire that choked him) and several large bruises to his chest, forehead and legs.
Msgr. Fan had spent nearly 30 years in prison for his stubborn refusal to join the Patriotic Association which meant breaking his bond with the Pope. His funeral was attended by thousands of faithful. Despite the deployment of many soldiers to maintain order and control, the faithful publicly protested calling for an investigation into the death of Msgr. Fan and demanding the perpetrators of his torture and death be brought to justice.
For Baoding faithful, the authorities’ reluctance to confess the death of Msgr. Shi hides their fear that something could happen similar to the events at the funeral of Msgr. Fan.
Another incident confirms the authorities’ concern for possible threats to order and security. Just a day before the release of the news of the death of Msgr. Shi, Yu Zhengsheng, Politburo “number four” arrived in Baoding, chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).
According to Xinhua, he making an inspection of “the situation of religions.” In fact he only met members of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, along with Hebei Catholic personalities and bishops. A local Catholic points out that “it is the first time that such a high level official has ever visited a small place like Baoding.” In all likelihood – he continued – “the leaders are concerned about the political stability and security”, which could be shaken by the news of the death of the bishop.
Above all authorities fear the bad press that would be generated by news that a Catholic bishop died in police custody, just as they attempt to take the “higher moral ground” in the fight against corruption and the misdeeds of the members of party. On the other hand, as some of the faithful of Yixian point out, if they handed over the deceased prelate’s body or the ashes it would be the first time in 14 years that China would admit it he had seized Msgr. Shi, after denying any knowledge of his fate for years.
WHO IS MSGR. COSMA SHI ENXIANG
Msgr. Shi was born April 17, 1922 in Shizhuang (Hebei). On 14 August 1947 he was ordained a priest in the Apostolic Prefecture of Yixian, two years after Mao Zedong took power and began to implement a policy of control of the Church, emphasizing the urgent need for all Catholics to express their patriotism, becoming independent from the rest Church and breaking bonds with the pontiff. Fr. Shi, was arrested for the first time in 1954 because of his stubborn fidelity to the Pope. In 1957 he was sentenced to hard labor in the freezing region of Heilonjiang first, then in the coal mines in Shanxi. Released in 1980, he dedicated his life to evangelization and supporting the faithful in Hebei.
On 24 June 1982, Msgr. Zhou Fangji consecrated him bishop in secret and his clandestine episcopal ministry began. In 1987 he was arrested and placed under house arrest for two years.
In 1989, there were hopes for a new opening in society and in the Church in China. But the Tiananmen massacre in June dealt them a cruel blow. The underground bishops, who on 21 November of that year had formed a bishops’ conference, were all arrested along with many priests. They included Msgr. Cosma Shi. Within a few weeks five bishops and 14 priests were swallowed up by the regime’s prison system, released only in 1993, thanks to an international pressure campaign. On 13 April 2001, the bishop was arrested again and disappeared into thin air. Up until now when the news of his death spread like wildfire only to be later denied. Where he died, how and when will remain a mystery that only the Chinese Communist Party knows.
A Yixian faithful told AsiaNews: “We just want his body or his ashes, and we want to give a proper burial to this martyr of the faith”, who spent 54 years (more than half of his life) in prison. But in China the dead are as frightening as the living, if not even more so.