Bishop Shi Enxiang, 79, had previously spent 30 years in jail, according to Kung, who heads a Connecticut foundation named after his uncle, Ignatius Cardinal Kung Pinmei, the former bishop of Shanghai, who had also been incarcerated for 30 years and died last year at age 98.
Bishop Shi is the seventh underground prelate in prison; six others are under strict surveillance or in hiding. Shi heads the diocese of Yixian in the northern Chinese Hebei province.
"He was taken into custody in Hebei after a Good Friday visit to Beijing, where the authorities spotted and then trailed him," Kung said.
At about the same time, they detained at least five more priests and many lay Catholics loyal to Rome, the Kung Foundation reported. This wave of arrests followed a major crackdown against followers of the Falun Gong meditation movements, of whom about 50,000 are in detention.
Of these, 10,000 have been sent to forced labor camps without trial, 600 to mental institution and hundreds to penitentiaries, Herbert Kremp, a German expert on China recently wrote in the Die Welt newspaper.
According to Kremp, "The Chinese police have lost control over this problem."
"The Chinese government feels threatened by the underground Christians and the Falun Gong in different ways," said David Aikman, a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. "The Falun Gong openly demonstrate against the regime, the Christians do not. In fact, they support the government, for example in its claim to sovereignty over Tibet and Taiwan, although they do not advocate a violent takeover of the island.
"The Communists fear Christians because they are blind to what is driving them. "This is outside their grasp."
Moreover, Christianity is growing at a rapid pace. For quite some time already, church members have outnumbered the 60 million members of the Communist Party, he said.
Some time ago, the People's Daily published government estimates putting the number of "illegal" Protestants at 67 million. These are evangelical Christians attending primarily house churches. The party's central organ added that a further 13 million Chinese were Catholics loyal to the pope.
Add to this 15 million members of the state-licensed Protestant church, and 4 million Catholics organized in a schismatic denomination recognized by the regime, but not by Rome, and you have nearly 100 million Christians in China, a nation of 1.2 billion.
Aikman, who travels to China for research almost once a year, cautioned that it would be unfair to draw too strict a line between "official" and "unofficial" Christians, whether Protestant or Catholic. Members of the state-licensed denominations attend services in the "illegal" churches and vice versa. Most of the official clergy of the former empathize with the latter, according to Aikman.
"For example, I estimate that two-thirds of the bishops and priests in the [state-related] Patriotic Association of Catholics are at heart loyal to the pope and therefore legitimate by the Vatican's standards," he said. "There can be no doubt that many Catholic priests are secretly elevated by some papal messenger, who comes clandestinely."
"What's more, there are parts of China where even Christian schools are allowed to operate openly with the tacit approval of local government authorities."
Underground Catholics and Protestants are now making sure that Christianity will be kept alive even if persecution shifted into higher gear. Before Shanghai's bishop Kung was arrested in 1955, he trained hundreds of catechists to pass on the Catholic faith in his diocese to future generations. Now both denominations follow his example by training future priests and pastors in record numbers.
Joseph Kung told UPI that there are at least 1,000 clandestine Catholic seminarians. "To avoid discovery, professors have to travel covertly long distances to train them individually or in small groups at many different locations." Aikman added that "scores of thousands of young Protestants" were now being trained for the ministry at clandestine Bible colleges and seminaries.
For centuries, Protestants and Catholics in China have practiced their faith apart, even using different words for God. Are they now cooperating, sharing resources, studying Scripture together? Replied Joseph Kung, "The answer is: yes!"
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