VATICAN (CWN) -- Archbishop Philip Yang Libo, a leading figure in the underground Church of China, died last week, the Vatican has announced.

      Fides, the news service affiliated with the Congregation for Evangelization, reported the Archbishop Yang was secretly ordained a bishop in 1981. From 1952 to 1992, he had been arrested and imprisoned several times because of his priestly activities. For the past six years he had been under constant police surveillance. From 1989 until his death, he had been vice-president of the underground bishops' conference.

      The archbishop's death-- for which no cause was given-- comes at a time when the Holy See is hoping for an improvement in relations with the government of China. The Vatican has recently sought permission from Beijing to send a representative to the mainland, in hopes of advancing negotiations toward a normalization of ties; the Chinese government has not yet responded to that request.

      The Chinese government has kept much hidden from a delegation of US religious leaders who, on Thursday, ended a fact-finding trip to China investigating religious persecution in that Communist country after flying into Hong Kong to meet with local religious leaders and government officials.

      On Wednesday, the three men -- Rabbi Arthur Schneier of the Appeal to Conscience Foundation, Catholic Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Newark, New Jersey, and the Rev. Don Argue of the National Association of Evangelicals -- toured a Tibetan prison where 100 monks and nuns are being held. The group was selected by US President Bill Clinton to visit the country after an invitation was extended by Chinese Premier Jiang Zemin last year.

      The Vatican news agency Fides warned that the trip could prove meaningless, however, because many underground Chinese Christians were being prevented from meeting with the group. Fides said it had received reports from across China that "several (underground church members) were under police control and would not be able to see the US guests." Religious practice is strictly controlled under Chinese law and religious expression outside of the officially sanctioned churches is prohibited. An underground Catholic Church, which remains in communion with the universal Church, is reportedly under constant persecution.

      The US clerics end their trip in the former British colony of Hong Kong on Thursday where religion remains free of state control after last year's handover to mainland China. They plan to meet Hong Kong leader Tung Chee-hwa, US Consul-General Richard Boucher and leaders of the major religions in this territory of 6.6 million people. They are expected to make a full report of their findings after they return to the United States.

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February 27 - March 1, 1998 volume 9, no. 42         DAILY CATHOLIC