BEIJING - An 81-year-old Roman Catholic bishop in southern China, who spent more than 30 years in prison for his loyalty to the Vatican, was rearrested last week, a Catholic foundation in the United States said yesterday.
If confirmed, the latest arrest of Bishop Zeng Jingmu of Jiangxi province is a particular setback for the Clinton administration and a slap in the face for the Vatican.
In early 1998, as President Clinton prepared to visit China, U.S. officials sought Zeng's early release from a labor camp, where he had been sent in 1995 for holding unauthorized religious services.
When Zeng was freed in May 1998, six months before his three-year sentence was to expire, Clinton and other officials called it a hopeful sign that Clinton's policy of constructive engagement with China was "bearing fruit," in the words of James R. Sasser, then U.S. ambassador to China.
Since his release, Zeng, who is described by associates as frail, has reportedly been kept under virtual house arrest, with tight police surveillance.
But at midnight Thursday, about 60 security agents surrounded the bishop's house, entered it and seized him, said Joseph Kung, head of the Cardinal Kung Foundation in Stamford, Conn., which publicizes the persecution of China's so-called underground church.
Kung said in an interview that Zeng's associates had not been told why he was taken. But Kung speculated that it was because of his continued stand against cooperating with the government-allied church. His foundation has reported the detentions or beatings of several pro-Vatican priests in recent months.
The arrest report coincided with the publicized visit to China by a high Vatican official. Cardinal Roger Etchegaray's attendance at a religious conference in Beijing last week had been widely interpreted as indicating a slight thaw in relations between China and the Vatican.
Since he was ordained as a priest in 1949, the year the Communists won power in China, Zeng has been one of the most steadfast opponents of the official "patriotic" church, which accepts the supremacy of the Communist Party and rejects the pope's right to select bishops. Between 1955 and 1995, according to the Kung Foundation, he spent more than 30 years in prison.
In the early 1990s Zeng became known for offering huge open-air Masses on a mountain top, which were attended by tens of thousands of worshippers until the authorities clamped down.