August 2, 2003

In 1999, when the Communist Party launched a campaign against Falun Gong, Michael Fu Tieshan, the bishop of Beijing and chairman of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, joined the heads of the other officially sanctioned religions in China to condemn the group as [slanderous word omitted].

The ease with which the communists can summon church leaders to mouth party slogans in public is, no doubt, an indication of the flourishing state of religious freedom in China. Bishop Fu, who led a religious delegation to the United States in 2000, said then that China was entering a "golden age" for religion. It is no surprise, therefore, to find that the revered bishop has again jumped on the party bandwagon in the current initiative to discredit the Catholic bishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Zen Ze-kiun.

On July 25, the official China Daily newspaper carried a signed commentary denouncing Bishop Zen by name. It said: "Recently, a few leaders of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese have violated Jesus Christ's principle: 'Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's.' They have discarded their neutral and benign role and are intervening in politics in a high profile."

As is customary in a communist campaign, the diatribe against Bishop Zen sought to isolate him and his followers as "a minority of the members of the Catholic church's top echelon" who are "wantonly imposing their political views on their members and, in their clerical capacities, encouraging them to participate in political activities. Their actions are extremely irresponsible and they are turning the Catholic church in Hong Kong into something like a political organisation like the Democratic Party and the April Fifth Action. They are eager to put up political shows, coming to the forefront of the political stage and confusing their role as clergymen with that of politicians."

It took only three days for the pious Bishop Fu to pick up his cue and speak up for the "patriotic" church. The good bishop's words were published by the China Daily on its front page on Tuesday.

"The behaviour of several Catholic clergymen in Hong Kong has affected social stability and harmed the image of Catholicism in Hong Kong, said Fu Tieshan, a leading Christian cleric in China," it reported.

Mindful of the spiritual welfare of his fellow Catholics in Hong Kong - who, unlike him, owe allegiance to the Pope rather than the party - Bishop Fu denounced unnamed Catholic leaders in Hong Kong. The China Daily helpfully pointed out that while Bishop Fu "did not specify their names", he "was obviously referring to Joseph Zen and several others who have been active in recent events in Hong Kong".

Bishop Fu said that, as a Chinese Catholic bishop, he was concerned about what happened in Hong Kong and did not expect to see "improper behaviour from clergymen who make it more complicated to improve relations between China and the Vatican". Clearly, despite his heavy religious responsibilities, he is also concerned about affairs of state.

It is interesting to see that the China Daily, while denouncing Bishop Zen for his involvement in politics, saw no irony at all in reporting that Bishop Fu, in addition to his religious title, is also a vice-chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress.

That is to say, he is among a handful of officials in China who are referred to as party and state leaders. But Bishop Fu, presumably, sees no conflict of interest and knows where his priorities lie. The newspaper may well be right about some bishops being too political.