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Reports: Authorities Detain 'Underground' Chinese Priests and Laymen

...required to attend political study sessions...

BEIJING (The Blaze/AP) -- Religious freedom is under attack in China -- or so it seems. Now, a number of priests and laymen in China's underground Catholic church have been detained in the country's northwest in a struggle over the appointment of a new bishop, overseas reports said Wednesday.

Earlier this summer, The Blaze reported on the Chinese government's decision to ignore the Vatican and self-appoint bishops. Then, in July, we brought you the story of a Christian pastor who was sentenced to time in a labor camp for organizing "illegal" religious gatherings. These newfound arrests are the latest chapter in the nation's quest to curb "unofficial" church activity.

Catholic news agencies AsiaNews and ucanews said security officials rounded up men from the underground community in the city of Tianshui over the weekend. They are being held separately and are required to attend political study sessions for four hours each day, they said.

However, an official with the local government's Religious Affairs Bureau said the men were merely taking part in a routine training session. "There was definitely no detention at all," said the man, who refused to give his name because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media.

AsiaNews and ucanews said the actions appeared to be aimed at persuading the men to support the official candidate to fill the bishop's seat in Tianshui.

China has no formal relations with the Vatican and insists on the right to appoint its own bishops in defiance of Rome. Underground and government-recognized Catholic communities exist in tandem in China, with priests and laymen often moving between the two. Ucanews has more about the underground church:

With about 15 priests, Tianshui’s diocese’s underground community, which has no affiliation with the government-sanctioned “open” Church, has maintained a peaceful relationship with government officials in recent years

But, the shakeup of this formerly peaceful existence may be a result of the rise in recent tensions between the Vatican and Beijing. Abandoning an informal arrangement in which it had cooperated with Rome on appointing bishops, China has moved to unilaterally filling empty seats, sometimes with priests who have been rejected outright by the Vatican.

Rome has called on Chinese Catholics to resist such moves, while Beijing has accused the Vatican of disrespect and gross interference in the country's internal affairs and placed underground priests under increasing pressure to join the official Catholic Patriotic Association.

In the case of Tianshui, which is in Gansu province, the bishop's seat has been vacant since its previous occupant, Zhao Jinglong, died in 2004, AsiaNews said. Zhao's nephew, Zhao Jianzhang, has been acting bishop and has been nominated by the official church to formally take over the position.

However, he faces competition for the loyalty of parishioners from the administrator of the underground community, Wang Ruohan, who along with his brother, Wang Ruowang, and retired bishop Wang Milu were among the priests being detained, it said.

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