China dismisses report of priest being tortured


China yesterday questioned the accuracy of a report which claimed a Roman Catholic priest had been sexually harassed by prostitutes while in police custody.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mr Zhu Bangzao, scoffed at the report by Fides, the news agency of the Vatican's missionary arm, which said on Monday that Father Li Qinghua (31) had been mentally and physically tortured during his detention.

"I don't know the details of the case and I don't know the source of the information," Mr Zhu said. "But I can say clearly that these reports have not been confirmed."

Quoting undisclosed sources in China, Fides said Father Li, a priest working in the underground Catholic Church in northern Hebei province, had been detained since November. The charges against him were not known. "He has been subjected to physical and psychological torture by a `special unit' composed of men and women," it said. "The female staff are made up of prostitutes who try in every way possible to have intimate relations with the priest."

Mr Zhu dismissed the report as "irresponsible" and denied the existence of underground churches in the atheist communist state. Authorities in Hebei province also denied knowledge of the report and said the case had not been raised with the provincial Public Security Department. But an official at the provincial religious affairs bureau said: "We will look into it."

Fides said six lay Catholics arrested at the same time as Father Li were later released after being forced to pay a fine of about £600, the amount a factory worker would earn in 14 months. The agency alleged that other priests had also been abused, and that video tapes of the abuse had been used to pressure them into confessing their acts and to force them to join the official, government-backed church.

China's official Patriotic Catholic Association does not recognise Pope John Paul's authority, appoints its own bishops and boasts about four million followers.

Fides quoted priests who had been arrested in the past as saying the provincial government in Hebei had conducted the abuse over several years to try "to change the thinking" of the priests and "to destroy their morality". Those who resisted were sent to camps for "re-education through work".