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The Parish The Sacred Heart and St. Margaret Mary. East Dereham, Norfolk

The life of a heroic Chinese priest and the growth

 The life of a heroic Chinese priest and the growth of Christianity in China

Bishop John Han Dingxiang

A fearless defender of the Church’s right to independence from the Chinese State, Bishop John Han Dingxiang spent a total of 30 years in custody for his loyalty to the Holy See. By the time of his death in September 2007 – a death still shrouded in mystery, his witness of faith and defiant courage in the face of terrible hardship and persecution had elevated him to martyr status to his people.

Upon his death, the authorities cremated and buried his body without a funeral, and his tombstone made no mention of his being a bishop. No priest was allowed at his death bed and no blessing was said over his remains. Outraged, some Chinese Catholics issued a statement calling on the Vatican to investigate Bishop Han’s death, declaring:” Why were the priests of the diocese not allowed to bless his remains and, together with his faithful, to pray for this heroic shepherd and to view his body?”

Along with so many other faithful, Bishop John had put his life on the line by refusing to be cowed by the communist government, but rather as a member of the ‘Underground’ Catholic Church steadfastly resisted all government interference.

Bishop John served more than 30 years in forced labour camps, prisons and under house arrest for the ‘counter-revolutionary’ and ‘unpatriotic’ activity of ministering to his flock. Even in prison, he served them – the picture above shows him holding aloft a crucifix from the balcony of his cell to a hidden video camera.

Bishop John started his seminary studies at the age of 13 in 1952 but his seminary was closed down by the communists 2 years later and he was to wait 30 years to be ordained. In an early act of defiance he continued his theological studies in the underground Catholic community. Putting their lives on the line and in constant fear of arrest and torture, they carried on their witness to the faith. In 1960 Bishop John was arrested for "counter-revolutionary activities” and was sent to the labour camps. Many were to die in these camps during the Maoist Cultural Revolution, working in freezing conditions amidst filth and degradation.

In 1976 the new Chinese leadership promised religious freedom and John Han was released from prison. He took up a position as a high school teacher and was finally ordained in 1986, becoming Bishop of Hebei province only 3 years later. However, the problems with the authorities continued as they were implacably opposed to the underground Catholic Church and he was arrested in 1999. The last 8 years of Bishop John’s life were spent in custody, his health in gradual decline. 

It is sobering to think that in this modern world of ours in the 21st century, Christians can still be treated in such a dreadful way for following their conscience. Does the new economic power of China ensure the West tones down its criticism of the Chinese authorities?

 As a church in recent times, we have been subjected to much negative media coverage – some of it justified. The life of Bishop John Han is the other side of the coin, a side so little reported in the media.

Christians in China

More people go to church on Sunday in China than in the whole of Europe.

It is impossible to say how many Christians there are in China today, but no-one denies the numbers are exploding. The government says 25 million, 18 million Protestants and six million Catholics. Independent estimates all agree this is a vast underestimate. A conservative figure is 80 to 130 million and still growing – communist party membership is allegedly 78 million. There are already more Chinese at church on a Sunday than in the whole of Europe.

The new converts can be found from peasants in the remote rural villages to the sophisticated young middle class in the booming cities. The officially sanctioned Catholic Patriotic Association appoints its own bishops and is not allowed to have any dealings with the Vatican, though Catholics are allowed to recognise the spiritual authority of the Pope.

There is a larger Catholic underground church however, supported by the Vatican. Inch by inch, the Vatican and the government have been moving towards accommodation. Most bishops are now recognised by both, with neither side admitting the greater sovereignty of the other. Yet in the past few months, the Chinese government has again turned tough, ordaining its bishops in the teeth of opposition from the Vatican which has in turn excommunicated one of them.


Dereham Justice & Peace Group

January 2012

Article written by Ian Campbell


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