Making his first statement to the outside world after nearly 30 years in prison and more than two years on parole, Shanghai's former Roman Catholic bishop, Ignatius Gong, said Saturday that he remains loyal to the Vatican.
The best known of hundreds of priests who were persecuted by the Communists in the 1950s, Gong became a symbol of resistance to Communist authority. The priest, whose Chinese name is Gong Pinmei, was believed to have been under heavy pressure during his long years in prison to renounce his loyalty to the Vatican in exchange for his freedom.
Catholic sources in Hong Kong said Gong's recent release from parole could improve chances that the Vatican and China will eventually renew long-severed ties.
In an interview, the 87-year-old bishop said he was in good health and was released from prison in 1985 because he is not opposed to the Chinese government. But Gong made it clear that he has refused to associate himself with the government-sponsored Patriotic Catholic Assn., which has no ties with the Vatican.
Asked if he still respects the infallibility of the Pope, Gong said: "If I didn't believe in that, I wouldn't be a Catholic."
Gong spoke to reporters from The Washington Post and Sydney Morning Herald through an interpreter provided by Shanghai's foreign affairs office.
Gong was arrested in 1955 on charges of high treason and later sentenced to life imprisonment as a "counterrevolutionary." He was accused of opposing China's land reform plan and participation in the Korean War.
He was paroled in July, 1985, and released from parole Tuesday. His political rights were also restored last week.
Asked if he was freed because he expressed repentance over his opposition to sending Catholics to fight in Korea, Gong said, "It had nothing to do with that." But the bishop clearly did not want to discuss controversial issues, and cut off the interview after 10 minutes, saying he was too tired.
Considering his many years in prison, he appeared to be in fairly good health. A church official said he has a minor heart complaint and a slight hearing problem. Dressed simply in a traditional dark blue cotton tunic, he walked slowly with the help of a cane.
A church official said Gong lives with three other bishops in the Shanghai bishop's residence, and spends the day reading the Bible and saying prayers.
There was no time to ask Gong about Catholics who remain in prison. Hong Kong sources say that more than 50 lay Catholics and priests still are being held.
The official Chinese Catholic Patriotic Church claims 3 million members, although foreigners estimate there may be many more.