HONG KONG (CNS) – Authorities in northern China have arrested a Vatican-appointed Catholic bishop, his seven priests and 10 seminarians in what is seen as part of a new crackdown on the underground Catholic Church in the communist country.

Ucanews.com reported that police arrested Bishop Joseph Zhang Weizhu, 63, of Xinxiang on May 21, a day after detaining priests and seminarians for allegedly violating the country’s new regulations on religious affairs.

Chinese authorities have not recognized the Diocese of Xinxiang since the Vatican erected it in 1946 during the civil war that led to the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949.

Bishop Zhang, appointed by the Vatican, was secretly ordained in 1991. His Vatican appointment was not approved by the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China and the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, reported ucanews.com.

China implemented a new set of rules for religious clergy that went into effect in May. He asks all the clergy to register with the state in order to serve Catholics while asking Catholics to democratically elect their bishops.

In 2018, China and the Vatican signed a two-year interim agreement on the appointment of bishops; the Vatican said the goal was to unify the Catholic Church. The agreement was renewed in 2020.

At the time of signing the agreement, Pope Francis regularized the situation of seven bishops who had been ordained without Vatican approval. No mention was made of the plight of the so-called underground bishops, those who refused to register with the Chinese government.

After the signing of the interim agreement in 2018, Anthony Lam Sui-ki, senior researcher at the Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong, suggested that a transition period was needed for Catholics in underground communities so that they could s ” adapt to the new environment.

Lam, who said he did not know the details of the deal, pointed out that Pope Benedict XVI, now retired, once described the underground church community in China as an unusual phenomenon, and now Pope Francis would ask underground communities to “surface” after an arrangement is made by the Chinese government.

Ucanews.com reported that some Chinese Catholics claim new government regulations aim to end the underground church by criminalizing and arresting its clergy while working outside the state-approved clergy database .

Since the agreement came into effect, the Vatican has approved seven Beijing-appointed bishops; the state-sanctioned church has approved and installed five Vatican-appointed bishops, ucanews.com reported.

Bishop Zhang, who heads the diocese of 100,000 Catholics, was not approved by the state church even after the Sino-Vatican accord was signed. He was continually under pressure from state authorities and was arrested several times before being subsequently released.

Local Catholics said a government-appointed administrator has led the diocese since 2010 and reports directly to the state. The bishop does not have the right to manage diocesan finances and resources.

The arrests came after the diocese decided to use an abandoned factory building as a seminary. Church authorities have been accused of breaking government rules, ucanews.com reported.

The media claimed that around 100 policemen surrounded the building the day before Bishop Zhang’s arrest. As the police deployment continues, a manhunt is underway to search for other seminarians who have allegedly fled to avoid arrests.

The crackdown in Xinxiang comes at a time when Pope Francis has called on Catholics around the world to pray for Christians in China as they celebrate the feast of Mary, Help of Christians and Patron Saint of the country on May 24.

“The Mother of the Lord and of the Church is venerated with special devotion in the Sheshan Shrine in Shanghai and is assiduously invoked by Christian families in the trials and hopes of daily life,” said the Pope.

Mainland Chinese Catholics have a tradition of making a pilgrimage each year to pray at Sheshan Shrine, the country’s most famous Marian shrine, especially around May 24.

In recent years, authorities have placed numerous obstacles in front of pilgrims, and this year they have barred all visits there during the month of May, citing the coronavirus pandemic, even though amusement parks in the region are open.