Bishop Matthias Duan Yinmin

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Matthias Duan Yinmin, priest: born Mutewehe, China 19 February 1908; ordained priest 1937; Bishop of Wanxian 1949-2001; died Wanxian, China 10 January 2001.

Matthias Duan Yinmin, priest: born Mutewehe, China 19 February 1908; ordained priest 1937; Bishop of Wanxian 1949-2001; died Wanxian, China 10 January 2001.

Bishop Matthias Duan Yinmin, the last Roman Catholic bishop in China publicly appointed by the Vatican before the Communist takeover, led his diocese of Wanxian in Sichuan Province for more than half a century, a remarkable stint made all the more extraordinary by the difficult conditions the Church had to endure under Communist rule.

Duan trod a fine line between loyalty to the Pope and to the regime. Although reportedly never a member of the government-sponsored Catholic Patriotic Association, which rejects ties to the Vatican, he was allowed to function openly in the government-approved church as a bishop - except during his years of re-education during the Cultural Revolution. He also retained the support of the Vatican, continuing to be listed in the Vatican yearbook, the Annuario Pontificio. Nearly all the other Chinese bishops loyal to the Vatican remain underground, and authorities frequently detain and imprison the underground church's bishops, priests and lay people.

Duan was born into a Catholic family near Wanxian, 800 miles south-west of Beijing, deciding early on that he wanted to become a priest. He studied theology at the Pontifical Urban University in Rome, where he was ordained in March 1937. Returning to China the following year he was appointed rector of Wanxian seminary. Pope Pius XII named him bishop of Wanxian in June 1949, four months before the Communists declared the founding of the People's Republic in Beijing, and he was consecrated on 18 October, just two months before Wanxian fell under Communist control.

The new Communist regime severed ties with the Vatican in 1951, expelled foreign clergy and set up a government-controlled Catholic Church in the 1950s to eliminate the Vatican's influence.

Duan was sent to work on cotton plantations and factories from 1954 to 1966, followed by seven years of forced labour in re-education camps during the Cultural Revolution. When Red Guards, the Cultural Revolution's fanatical shock troops, hauled a statue of the Virgin Mary out of Duan's cathedral and ordered him to destroy it in front of his parishioners, Duan refused. "You can take off my head, but not my faith!" he told them.

Freed from labour camp in 1973, he was forced to undergo further re-education until 1979, when he was allowed to return to his diocese.

In deference to Duan's status as the oldest resident bishop in China, Pope John Paul II invited him and his auxiliary Bishop Joseph Xu Zhixuan to the 1998 synod of Asian bishops at the Vatican. But Beijing, citing the lack of official ties between China and the Vatican, refused to give them passports and rebuked the Pope for the "unilateral and arbitrary" invitation, a decision Duan at the time said caused him several sleepless nights. Duan decried the "political motives" behind the ban in a message written in Latin and faxed to the Pope which was read aloud at the meeting. "The body is absent, but the heart is always present at the synod of bishops."

During his ministry Duan consecrated eight bishops, mostly from Sichuan Province, and participated in the consecration of a further six. Interviewed by foreign Catholic publications in later years, he was increasingly - but politely - outspoken, attacking many of the central tenets of Chinese policy towards the Catholic Church. He stressed his "profound fidelity" to the Pope, a brave move in view of official hostility to John Paul II. "I pray for the Pope every day, for his mission, for his health and to ask that the Holy Spirit sustain his service to humanity."

He added that he prayed constantly for a papal visit to his country.

By Felix Corley