BEIJING — A Catholic bishop detained numerous times for his ties to the Vatican has died in police custody, according to a religious news agency and a monitoring group.
Han Dingxiang, 70, from Hebei province just south of Beijing, reportedly died Sunday of cancer. A few close relatives were called to the hospital, but contact with fellow church members had been cut off after his most recent detention in September 2005.
Within six hours of his death, his body was cremated and his ashes buried in a public cemetery, according to the Stamford, Conn.-based Cardinal Kung Foundation and AsiaNews, a Vatican-affiliated news agency.
"Under normal circumstances, you don't cremate someone six or five hours after he dies," said foundation head Joseph Kung. "Unless it's very exceptional or the government wants to destroy evidence or something."
The Chinese government, officially atheist, declined to comment.
"This name is not in our list of bishops," said Liu Bainian, vice chairman of the state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Assn. "Sorry we don't know this person and don't know anything about him."
China's underground Roman Catholic Church, of which Han was a member, believes that the Vatican and not Beijing should oversee church affairs. China and the Vatican don't have diplomatic ties, although they have cooperated on some issues.
Han was one of approximately 35 underground bishops in China, down from more than 50 in the 1960s. The Vatican has not appointed any new bishops in recent years, at least not officially. "They're getting older and dying off," Kung said, adding that at 70, Han was "one of the youngest."
Zhang Shijiang, a priest from Hebei, said he knew and respected Han, but wasn't too worried about demographics. "In the past decade, the younger generation has helped out the old bishops," he said. "The baton has been passed."
Han was born in 1937 and first arrested in 1960 for "counter-revolutionary activities." He was put in a labor camp. He was released in 1979, became a priest in 1986 and was named a bishop by the Vatican in 1989. In 1999, he was reportedly arrested and held for four years, placed in police housing for two years, then held again in 2005.
Over the years, Han spent a total of 35 years either in prison, labor camps or under house arrest, the foundation said.
"The Chinese government doesn't like anyone who has the magic," Kung said. "Father Han was one of those people who was loved by everyone."