Amid signs of improving ties between the Vatican and Beijing, police in northern China have detained a priest in the unofficial Catholic church along with his assistant, a church monitoring group reported yesterday.
Priest Pang Yongxing and Ma Yongjiang, a recent seminary graduate, were picked up on Friday afternoon in Qingyuan county, about 100km south of Beijing, the Cardinal Kung Foundation reported.
No other details were available, said the group, based in Stamford, Connecticut.
Pang, 32, earlier was sentenced to three years in a labor camp on charges of violating anti-cult laws and "disturbing the peace of society," the foundation reported.
China hands out such sentences without trial, using them to jail political and religious dissidents, along with drug abusers, prostitutes and petty criminals.
An officer reached by phone at the Qingyuan public security bureau's political department said he had no information about the reported detentions.
The officer refused to give his name as is typical with Chinese police.
Qingyuan is in Hebei Province, a stronghold of the underground church, which defies the Communist Party's demand that Catholics worship only in state-controlled congregations that reject papal authority.
Chinese Roman Catholics were forced to cut ties with the Vatican in 1951, two years after the officially atheist Communist Party took power. Government churches recognize the pope as a spiritual leader but appoint their own priests and bishops.
Foreign religious scholars say there are as many as 10 million underground Catholics, compared with 4 million in the official church.
The Vatican says more than 50 underground Chinese Catholic bishops or priests have been detained or live under house arrest or police surveillance.
Such detentions continue despite efforts by Rome to ease disagreements with Beijing over appointments of bishops and other issues.
In his first few months in office, new Pope Benedict XVI has made a series of statements reaching out to China. Shortly after his election in April, a new auxiliary bishop of Shanghai was consecrated with the tacit approval of the Vatican.
Since then, the pope has given a special welcome to a group of priests from China's state church who attended his general audience and met with the founder of a Catholic lay organization that has been facilitating diplomatic contacts with China -- including helping to arrange a secret meeting in April between the Vatican and a government delegation.
In recent years, the lines between the official and underground churches have blurred in many parts of China, with priests and faithful traveling between the two.
Yet, China's communist rulers, who brook no challenge to their authority, remain determined to isolate and crush social groups not under their direct control.