CUNMOYU — The village of Cunmoyu (pronounced "Tsunmoyu") and the proud, white domes of its new churches appear well before the destination is reached: Built against a small mountain, it overlooks the dry, brown plains of Hebei, the province around Beijing.

But Cunmoyu has another distinctive feature: Almost all of its residents are Catholic.

In the cemetery at the edge of the village, two imposing, black marble headstones sit at the center of a forest of white crosses: They belong to two former bishops of the Yicheng diocese, a district of the province of Hebei, about 150 km (100 miles) southeast of Beijing. The epitaphs, a succession of incarceration dates, indicate that the former died in 1989, the latter in 1993.

A third prelate, their direct successor and the diocese’s last official bishop, Monsignor Côme Shi Enxiang, could join them soon, on condition that his body or his ashes are returned to his family. Informed on March 31 of the death of the bishop, who was 94 years old — and had been abducted in 2001 by the Chinese political police — there has so far been no such sign.

A life's sacrifice

“We started the preparations and waited a whole night in vain in his home village, Shizhuang. Then the family attempted to reach the local authorities. They answered they didn’t know anything,” says Father Thomas Yang Linghui, a priest in his forties from the Yicheng diocese, waiting, like his colleagues, for news on the disappearance of his bishop 14 years ago.

Ordained a priest two years before the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, Monsignor Côme spent nearly half his life in labor camps, prison or secret detention. He was part of those resolute Chinese prelates, loyal to the Vatican and who always refused to join the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, subordinated to the Communist Party of China.

The CPC declares itself “independent” from the Vatican and appoints its bishops, irrespective of the dogma of the Roman Church that states that the Pope alone has the authority to choose bishops. The standoff over ordinations is at the heart of a longstanding conflict that blocks the Vatican and China from having formal diplomatic relations.

The majority of Chinese bishops are recognized both by the Holy See and the Chinese Patriotic Church — those who are not recognized by the Pope are exposed to excommunication — the Vatican’s repeated attempts of finding a modus operandi with Beijing often hit the wall. On March 12, the spokesman of the Holy See, Father Federico Lombardi, suggested once more to Beijing the adoption of the “Vietnamese model,” according to which Hanoi decides on candidates put forward by the Vatican. The spokesperson of China's ministry of foreign affairs retorted that the Vatican had to “accept the historical tradition and the reality of Chinese Catholics.”

The Hebei and Yicheng dioceses, rich with a Catholic tradition that goes much further back in time than Communism, have long been a battlefield between Chinese authorities and the clergy loyal to Rome. Hebei’s bishops loyal to the Pope keep “disappearing.” In detention, secret or not, and sometimes body and soul.

In April 1992, says Eglises d’Asie, the information agency of the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris, the body of Monsignor Pierre-Joseph Fan Xueyan — the Baoding clandestine bishop who had been in detention since 1990 — “was returned to his family in a plastic body bag. One of his legs was broken and his face bore obvious traces of violence.”

Daily Mass in a typical Chinese church in the Shaanxi Province — Photo: Zhang Ning/Xinhua/ZUMA

The solemn inauguration mass of his successor, Jacques Su Zhimin, was celebrated in 1995 by Monsignor Côme, at the side of another underground bishop, Monsignor François An Shuxi, who, at the time, was an auxiliary bishop of Baoding. The ceremony took place in Donglu, a village of the Hebei province known as the site of a reported apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1900.

Slipping away

Furious that they did not manage to prevent the installment ceremony, authorities hunted down the three bishops, who went into hiding. Monsignor An Shuxin was arrested in 1996. As for Monsignor Su Zhimin, he was confined to his home, but eventually escaped. Arrested again in 1997, he has not been heard from since. Monsignor Côme spent five years in hiding before his “abduction,” which took place in Beijing, on Good Friday, in April 2011.

Discord

In detention, only Monsignor An Shuxin agreed to join the Patriotic church. “One of the rules of the Church is not to be political," insists bitterly a priest in the region, in his sixties, who wishes to remain anonymous. "But the government wants to choose the bishops and only miscreants could accept.” Freed in 2006, Monsignor An Shuxin is now the official bishop of Baoding.

By persecuting bishops, the protectors of the unity of the Church, the Chinese authorities know they are sowing discord. “In 2001, after the disappearance of Monsignor Côme, the situation became quite complicated in the Yicheng diocese," the same anonymous priest noted. "And it’s still quite chaotic today.”

The diocese is now managed by an administrator, also clandestine. Of course, Yicheng’s illegal parishes have more freedom than before, but priests cannot proselytize.

“The Patriotic Church had more liberties for that. We dedicate ourselves to our parishioners and to those who come to find us,” explains Father Thomas. As for the Patriotic Church, it is suspected of coveting the goods, and the flocks, of its 'rival.'”

In the village of Yongle, where Father Thomas has been the parish priest since 2012, workers are renovating the church, built in 1988. One day, officials of the Bureau of religious affairs of the Hebei province and the Yicheng district showed up without a warning. The priest slipped way.

Thomas explained wryly: “Let’s say they pretend they don’t know I exist.”