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Cardinal Ignatius Kung, 98, Long Jailed by China, Dies

by Elisabeth Rosenthal

New York Times

March 14, 2000


Beijing, March 13 - Cardinal Ignatius Kung, one of China's most enduring religious dissidents, who spent most of his adult life in a battle of wills with the Communist government over his right to practice his Roman Catholic faith, died on Sunday in exile at his nephew's home in Stamford, Conn. He was 98.

The cause of death was stomach cancer, said his nephew, Joseph Kung, who arranged for Cardinal Kung to go to the United States for medical care in 1988 after he was released from more than 30 years in prison.

"He was a man who became a symbol for world leaders in all countries in their fight for religious freedom," his nephew said in a statement.

Ignatius Kung, born in Shanghai in 1901, was ordained a priest in pre-Communist China, in 1930. He was consecrated as bishop of Shanghai, the first Chinese to hold that post, just days after the Communists took power in 1949, setting up a battle that would consume his entire life.

He spent the next half-century tirelessly declaring his devotion to Roman Catholicism and the Pope despite long prison terms and constant pressure from the Communists to support the state-sanctioned "patriotic" Catholic Church.

Beijing does not recognize the authority of the Pope over the millions of Catholics in china and broke diplomatic ties with the Vatican in 1951.

From the start of the Communist era, Bishop Kung refused to affiliate himself with the government-backed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and instead led his own group of devout Catholics, the Legion of Mary, which continued to hold its own religious activities through the early 1950's despite frequent arrests of its priests. Knowing that he, too, would at some point be imprisoned, he trained hundreds of lay people and members of the clergy to pass on the Catholic faith, his nephew said.

On Sept. 8, 1955, Bishop Kung and 200 priests from Shanghai were taken into custody.

But for the next three decades he perpetually frustrated China's leaders with his unwillingness to recant. According to his nephew, during a "struggle session" in 1956 at Shanghai's dog racing stadium, the bishop was pushed to the microphone to confess. But all he said was: "Long live Christ the King. Long live the Pope."

Bishop Kung was finally brought to trial in 1960 and sentenced to life in prison for leading a "counterrevolutionary clique under the cloak of religion." For the next 25 years he spent long periods in solitary confinement. Unswerving in his loyalty to the Church and the Pope, he was not allowed to receive visitors, letters or money to buy essentials - despite repeated requests by his family, human rights groups, governments and religious organizations, his nephew said.

In 1979, while still in prison, Bishop Kung was secretly elevated to cardinal by Pope John Paul II, who used his authority to appoint cardinals in pectore, meaning the appointment was not made public. It was disclosed only in 1991, by which time Cardinal Kung had long since left China and was living at a center for retired clergy in Bridgeport, Conn.

In 1985, after Cardinal Kung had spent 30 years in prison, the Chinese authorities released him to house arrest at the age of 84. He was officially freed from house arrest two and a half years later and went to the United States for medical treatment shortly thereafter, in 1988.

He was never allowed to return to his homeland, and he spent the last 12 years of his life celebrating public Masses and spearheading a media campaign to publicize the plight of China's Catholics through the Cardinal Kung Foundation, based in Stamford.

Today, in a telegram to Bishop Edward M. Egan of Bridgeport, the Pope praised Cardinal Kung for his "heroic fidelity to Christ amid persecution and imprisonment."