Missing, presumed dead: underground Chinese bishop, aged 93

Missing, presumed dead: underground Chinese bishop, aged 93

SHIZHUANG, China - In a living room plastered with pious images, the Shi family flicked through timeworn pictures of a wizened man with tortoiseshell glasses and bright eyes, the oldest bishop of China's underground Catholic church.

Almost a month ago, they were passed word that Shi Enxiang - who spent more than half a century in detention for refusing to renounce the authority of the Pope - had died, aged 93. Since then, nothing: no official confirmation, no corpse, no ashes.

"All we want is to be able to bury him. They should give us the body out of human dignity," said Shi Wanke, 66, the bishop's nephew, in a calm, gravelly voice. Around him, his children nodded in agreement.

The family were first told at the end of January that Shi Enxiang - whom they have not heard from since he disappeared during a trip to Beijing in 2001 - had died.

The village chief "asked if we had received the body of my uncle", said Shi Wanke. "We asked if he was alive. He said: 'No, he's dead. Apparently he's dead.' After that he came back twice to see if the body had arrived."

The former bishop of Yixian in the northern province of Hebei, Shi Enxiang was ordained in 1947, two years before the Communists came to power. He spent 54 years in labour camps for refusing to disavow the Pope and cooperate with China's state-sponsored church, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA).

Instead, he ministered in one of the hundreds of underground churches that have sprung up across China.

"He is a martyr and I hope that, one day, the life of our bishop will be recognised by the pope," said his 33-year-old great-nephew Shi Daxing.

"We want to organise a big public ceremony for his funeral. Even if we are under pressure, we want to honour him, as a member of our family (and) as a prominent member of the church."

Unholy silence

The fates of Shi Enxiang and Bishop Su Zhimin, who was detained in 1997, have been a key sticking point in relations between the Vatican and Beijing.

The two have not had diplomatic ties since they were broken off by Mao Zedong in 1951, and have been embroiled in a long-running battle for control of China's estimated 12 million Catholics.

Beijing bans adherents from recognising the Vatican's authority, regarding the Holy See's insistence on the right to appoint bishops as foreign interference in China's domestic affairs.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Pope Francis exchanged letters of congratulation on their respective elections in 2013, fuelling speculation that ties could be warming.

In December Francis ducked out of a meeting with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, which would have been sure to rile Beijing and jeopardise quiet behind-the-scenes contacts.

But Xi has overseen a crackdown on independent Christian groups and Shi's fate has drawn an angry response from Hong Kong, where Cardinal Joseph Zen, the city's emeritus bishop, led protests and sent an open letter to the Chinese authorities denouncing forced disappearances.

Calls by AFP to the Baoding municipal government, which oversees Shizhuang, went unanswered. A woman at the CPCA's Baoding diocese said she had "heard he's died" but declined to give details.

District officials have told the family the village head who gave them the news was a drunkard spreading "false information", they said.

They have long faced a wall of silence from Chinese authorities.

After he disappeared in 2001, Shi Daxing said, "We went to the county government, but they told us they didn't know anything and we should ask Beijing. But in Beijing, they sent us back to the county." Inside the family home, between the bursts of firecrackers marking the Lunar New Year and the cries of children, his relatives were left only with scraps of memories.

"He was a simple man," recalled a grandmother.

"The last of five siblings, he never had much. He wore only the clothes they gave him, ate practically only vegetables and never complained, even if we had forgotten to give him chopsticks to eat."

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