Release confined bishop, German ambassador to China says

In this July 30, 2015, file photo, a parishioner walks past the altar as members of Lower Dafei Catholic Church hold an impromptu prayer vigil as they wait for Chinese officials to arrive and cut down their church's cross in Lower Dafei Village near Wenzhou in eastern China's Zhejiang Province. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File) In this July 30, 2015, file photo, a parishioner walks past the altar as members of Lower Dafei Catholic Church hold an impromptu prayer vigil as they wait for Chinese officials to arrive and cut down their church's cross in Lower Dafei Village near Wenzhou in eastern China's Zhejiang Province. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File)

The German ambassador to China on Tuesday called on authorities to end the apparent confinement of a Catholic bishop and said he is concerned by proposed changes to the country's rules governing religion.

Ambassador Michael Clauss said in a statement posted on the embassy's website that Shao Zhumin appears to have been forced by authorities to move to unknown locations four times over the past year. Shao, who was recognized as a bishop by the pope but not by Beijing, now appears to be confined to his home.

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"His full freedom of movement should be restored," Clauss said in the statement.

Shao was appointed in September by the Vatican as bishop in the eastern city of Wenzhou, which has a large Christian community. Ever since the officially atheistic communist state cut relations with the Holy See in the 1950s, the Vatican and Beijing have been at loggerheads over who has the right to name bishops in China and other issues governing the church.

The Vatican-affiliated AsiaNews website, which closely covers the underground church in China, reported that police had taken Shao away on May 18. Last week, Shao was spotted arriving back at Wenzhou airport in Zhejiang province, accompanied by government officers who then drove him to an unknown location, AsiaNews reported on Monday.

It said his disappearance was believed to be part of an attempt to persuade him to join the ruling Communist Party-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

A woman who answered the phone at Wenzhou's police headquarters declined to respond to questions about Shao's case. An officer in charge of the Catholic Affairs division at the Wenzhou City Bureau of Ethnic and Religious Affairs referred calls to the propaganda department of Wenzhou's Communist Party Committee, where no one answered.

China's government has long had an uneasy relationship with Christianity, particularly when it comes to the pope's right to make decisions about canonical matters inside the country. In recent years, authorities in Zhejiang have removed hundreds of crosses and other outward symbols of the Christian faith, saying they violated building codes. Christian associations denounced the campaign as unconstitutional and humiliating.

China has an estimated 12 million Catholics, many of whom worship in non-state sanctioned congregations that often overlap with the government-recognized church.

Clauss also said that he was concerned by "a number of new rules" in a draft regulation on religious affairs, without specifying them.

"If unchanged, they could place further restrictions on the right to freedom of religion and belief," the ambassador said.

The proposed amendments made public in September have alarmed activists, who say they aim to suppress all unofficial religious activities. They include a clause that says religious sites should meet the requirements of urban planning, a clause that some observers have said is vague and could provide a legal basis for the removal of religious symbols such as crosses.

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