China Releases Another Elderly Catholic
HONG KONG (AP) _ China has released another elderly bishop in an apparent humanitarian gesture toward elderly religious leaders at odds with the Communist regime’s state-run churches, a human rights activist said today.
John Kamm, an American activist who has won the release of several Chinese dissidents over the past year, said he has received independent reports that Chinese authorities recently freed Bishop Joseph Li Side from a prison in the northern city of Tianjin.
Believed to be in his 60s and in poor health, Li was arrested in December 1989 during a nationwide crackdown on religion. Prior to his detention, Li had been the clandestine bishop of Tianjin’s underground Catholic church.
Kamm said he also received unconfirmed reports that Chinese officials freed another elderly Catholic and a Protestant clergyman in Shanghai.
Kamm noted that the crackdown which resulted in the jailing of Li and thousands of other Chinese worshippers was still in effect.
″We shouldn’t read into this that the government is tolerating greater religious freedom,″ Kamm said.
But he added, ″There seems to be some continuing movement with respect to the release of elderly clerics for humanitarian reasons. It seems they’re prepared now to say, ’If these guys are old, we can consider letting them go.‴
Kamm credited Sens. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) and John Breaux (D-La.) for urging Chinese officials to offer leniency to members of China’s clandestine Catholic church.
Some members have been jailed on and off since the 1949 Communist revolution.
In the 1950s, Chinese authorities recognized five religions - Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Buddhism and Taoism - and set up official organizations to direct them.
Any worship outside the official churches was banned, but many believers formed underground churches, especially Catholics, who defied orders from the state-run Catholic Patriotic Association to sever ties with the Vatican.
As many as 200 underground Chinese Catholics may still be imprisoned, Kamm said.
In May, Chinese authorities released three prominent Catholics who had been serving long jail sentences for ″counterrevolutionary activities.″
According a Ministry of Justice document circulated by Kamm, the three were freed because ″they were over 70 years old and had no one to look after them.″
Kamm said he was encouraged by a report that one of the three, the Rev. Joseph Jin Dechen, 72, has since been allowed to say Mass in his native Henan province.