Ever since Bishop Fan Xueyan died in 1992, believers have been prevented from paying respects to someone who spent his life resisting religious persecution.
April 13 is the death anniversary of Bishop Peter Joseph Fan Xueyan (1907-1992), the former cardinal of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Baoding in northern China’s Hebei Province. The bishop was imprisoned for more than 30 years for his refusal to break ties with the Vatican and join the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), which makes him one of the longest-serving prisoners of conscience in the world. He was appointed the bishop of Baoding diocese on April 12, 1951, and ordained two months later, becoming one of the last Chinese bishops ordained by the Vatican before China severed ties.
In November 1990, Bishop Fan went missing and was assumed to have been dead. Two years later, on April 16, 1992, the police reportedly left bishop’s frozen body in a plastic bag outside his relatives’ home. The authorities claimed he died three days prior from pneumonia. His body was found to have had broken bones and other injuries that could have resulted from torture.
Since then, to the annoyance of authorities, each year, believers would gather at the gravesite of Bishop Fan to pay their respects. In 2001, the government bulldozed over the grave, expecting to prevent people from visiting the bishop’s grave, but still increase the surveillance in the area from April 11 to 13 by blocking the roads in the perimeter of 7.5 kilometers around the bishop’ burial place.
Video: Police officers setting up checkpoints along the way to the cemetery where Bishop Peter Joseph Fan Xueyan is buried.
This year, two police cars with a surveillance camera installed atop one of them were also blocking the road, and officers questioning every passing pedestrian: “If you’re visiting relatives, you can proceed. If you’re visiting the grave, you cannot.” According to a local churchgoer, government personnel also guarded the bishop’s grave.
Another checkpoint was set up at the entrance to Xiaowangting village where the bishop used to live, about 20 police officers in camouflage uniforms on guard, eyeing each passing pedestrian.
The churchgoer added that due to the CCP’ strict control, they do not dare to go to the gravesite on the anniversary day; all they can do is stay at home and cherish the memory of the late bishop.
“No matter how the CCP persecuted, the bishop preferred to rather die than to compromise. His faith has always inspired loyal churchgoers. This is what the CCP fears the most and finds most intolerable,” said the believer.
Many Underground Catholic Church bishops who refuse to join the government-controlled CPCA have been and continue to be persecuted; some have even paid the ultimate price – their life. Others have been placed under long-term surveillance or house arrest, and are unable to exercise their episcopal rights.
Their situation has worsened after the Vatican-China deal of 2018. The Vatican interprets the agreement to the effect that the Catholic Patriotic Church and the Catholic Underground Church should merge into a unified organization loyal to both Rome and the Chinese regime. The CCP simply asks the underground priests and bishops to join the Patriotic Church. One way or the other, the dissidents who refuse to place themselves under the control of the CCP are persecuted.
Bishop Stephen Li Side, who was the legitimate underground bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tianjin, is one of them. He was secretly consecrated in 1982 but was apprehended two years later and placed under house arrest. Pressured by the international community, the CCP later released him but continued to arrest him from time to time, in 1991, placing Bishop Li under house arrest at Liangzhuangzi Church in a northern mountainous area of Jizhou district far from the city center.
On the surface, Bishop Li could still engage in some sacrament activities, such as holding Mass and performing the last rites for people. However, all of this was done under the government’s control and tight surveillance. He is 94 now, and unable to take care of himself, needing others to look after him.