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Joseph Fan Zhongliang: Jesuit who suffered decades of imprisonment and persecution as Shanghai's underground bishop


The underground bishop of Shanghai, Joseph Fan Zhongliang, died at the age of 97 following decades of imprisonment and house arrest. In death, as in life, he suffered persecution: officials in Shanghai turned down a request to hold his funeral at the city's cathedral and would only permit a small service at a funeral home.

Fan was appointed bishop of Shanghai – one of China's largest and wealthiest dioceses – by Pope John Paul II in 2000, but was refused recognition by the Communist Party-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association which oversees the church in China. Fan was immediately placed under house arrest and another priest, Aloysius Jin Luxian, was named bishop.

China's officially atheistic rulers reject the Vatican's insistence on the right to appoint bishops and the two sides have no formal ties. China has an estimated 8-12 million Catholics, around half of whom worship in congregations outside the control of the Catholic Patriotic Association.

Jin's successor, Thaddeus Ma Daqin, has not been seen in public since being taken into custody in 2012 after declaring his withdrawal from the Catholic Patriotic Association at his ordination ceremony, shocking and angering officials. He is believed to be held at Shanghai's Sheshan Seminary.

Although Beijing later rescinded Ma's appointment, Joseph Kung, the president of the Kung Foundation, which seeks to promote the Catholic Church in China. said Fan's death reinforced the need for Ma's release and return to pastoral duties, a move which would finally unite the government-approved and underground congregations. "By reinstating Bishop Ma to his rightful office, China will be taking an important step forward in honouring religious freedom, a right that is guaranteed by the Chinese Constitution," Kung said in a statement.

Born in 1918, Fan was baptised a Catholic at the age of 14 in 1932 and ordained a Jesuit priest in 1951, two years after the Communists seized power. Arrested in 1955 after Mao Zedong ordered Chinese Catholics to cut all ties with the Vatican, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for counter-revolutionary crimes and forced to work at a labour camp mortuary in the remote western province of Qinghai.

After finishing his sentence, Fan was assigned to teach at a school for the children of party officials. He was permitted to return to Shanghai in 1985 under the reforms of Deng Xiaoping but he still suffered harrassment, having his flat ransacked and being arrested many times.

Joseph Fan Zhongliang, priest: born Shanghai 18 December 1918; died Shanghai 16 March 2014.