Thursday, January 7, 2010
January 6, 2010
By MICHAEL WINES
BEIJING — Leo Yao Liang, a Roman Catholic bishop who spent 28 years in Chinese prisons during Mao’s rule for his refusal to renounce his allegiance to the Vatican, died on Dec. 30 in Xiwanzi, a town in north China’s Hebei Province.
Bishop Yao was 87 and had been ill with a severe cold for about two weeks before his death, according to Song Feng, the president of the Catholic Association of Xiwanzi Church.
The Cardinal Kung Foundation, which is based in Connecticut and advocates religious freedom for Catholics in China, stated on its Web site that the report of Bishop Yao’s death had apparently been delayed because Chinese authorities sought to withhold the news.
Short and stout, with a shock of white hair and a booming voice, Bishop Yao presided almost up to his death over daily open-air Masses that drew hundreds of worshipers, and Sunday Masses that often attracted a thousand people. The Chinese authorities forbade him to carry out his administrative duties as bishop but did not overtly interfere with his clerical activities.
China’s government does not recognize the Roman Catholic Church or its bishops. Instead, it promotes a government-affiliated faith, the Patriotic Catholic Association. But millions of Chinese are believed to remain loyal to the Vatican and attend so-called underground churches like those that Bishop Yao led. There are reported to be 15,000 Catholic worshipers in Xiwanzi diocese, where he was secretly made an auxiliary bishop in 2002.
For years after his release from prison in 1984, Mr. Song said, Bishop Yao urged his parishioners to follow a course of quiet but steadfast opposition both to the Patriotic Catholic Association and to government restrictions on their right to worship. But after Pope Benedict XVI made improved relations between the Vatican and Beijing a priority, he said, Bishop Yao began working to repair relations with the government.
The mourners at his weeklong funeral, which concludes with his burial on Wednesday, have included a number of local government officials, Mr. Song said.
Yao Liang was born in Hebei in 1923 and became a priest in 1946, according to the Kung Foundation. But after the Communist Party took power in 1949, Catholicism was outlawed, and Bishop Yao’s religious work became more and more circumscribed. In 1956 the government sent him to a labor camp, and in 1958 he was sentenced to prison for life after refusing to abandon his allegiance to the Vatican.
Bishop Yao said little about his 28 years of imprisonment. “Only sometimes he would complain to close friends about the unspeakable experience,” Mr. Song said. “He personally witnessed people being killed by the P.L.A.” — the People’s Liberation Army — “when he was taken to prison, and he was very traumatized.”
His 1984 release came as the Chinese government relaxed many of the restrictions of the Mao era. While many Catholic priests were still persecuted and Catholicism was strongly discouraged, worshipers were tacitly allowed to congregate at underground churches.
Mr. Song said that Bishop Yao was assigned by the government to be the pastor at a remote rural church in a mountainous area 25 miles from Xiwanzi. In 1997 he came to Xiwanzi, a town of about 7,000 people about 160 miles north of Beijing, close to the border with inner Mongolia.
Even at an advanced age, his problems with the government did not end. In 2006 the authorities ordered Mr. Yao to spend two and a half years in isolation from outsiders, studying Chinese religious laws, after he was held responsible for two conflicts between the government and underground churches.
Bishop Yao was directly involved in the first incident, in which worshipers built a new Catholic church and staffed it with priests not certified by the government, Mr. Song said. But he had no role in the second, in which angry Catholics laid siege to local government offices for three days during a dispute with a Patriotic Catholic organization.
Bishop Yao’s death, not quite a year after he was released from detention, leaves mainland China with 94 Vatican-approved bishops. The authorities are reported to have stepped up security for his burial in the Xiwanzi church graveyard, a ceremony that is expected to attract thousands despite record snows in the area.