Chinese bishop dies of heart disease

An underground Chinese Catholic bishop who served 24 years in jail for his loyalty to the pope has died, a U.S.-based religious monitoring group said Thursday.

Zhang Bairen, the Roman Catholic bishop of Hanyang, a city in China's northern Hubei province, died Wednesday from heart disease, the Cardinal Kung Foundation said in a statement. He was 90 years old.

Zhang, also known as Peter Chang, earned a Ph.D. in theology from the Pontificio Collegio Urbano in Rome and was ordained as a priest on Dec. 19, 1942, the statement said.

Zhang wrote in 1997 that he told Chinese authorities in 1955 that he would rather be shot dead than renounce the pope, it said. He was imprisoned from 1955 until 1979. China cut ties with the Vatican in 1951, shortly after the officially atheist Communist Party took power.

Worship is allowed only in government-controlled churches, which recognize the pope as a spiritual leader but appoint their own priests and bishops. Catholic Chinese who meet outside sanctioned churches are frequently harassed, fined and sometimes sent to labor camps.

The government's Catholic church claims 4 million believers. The Cardinal Kung Foundation says the unofficial church of Chinese loyal to Rome has 12 million followers, AP reports.

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