updated 9/11/2007 2:12:50 PM ET 2007-09-11T18:12:50

A bishop who led an underground congregation of Roman Catholics and was repeatedly detained for his loyalty to the Vatican died in police custody, two monitoring groups said Tuesday.

Bishop Han Dingxiang, 71, was cremated within six hours of his death Sunday and buried in a public cemetery with no priests or other faithful present, both groups said.

Han, who had been under house arrest or other forms of detention for nearly eight years, died while being treated for an unspecified illness, the U.S.-based Cardinal Kung Foundation said. The group, which has long had close contacts with China's underground church members, did not cite sources for its information.

AsiaNews, the Vatican-affiliated missionary news agency, said Han suffered from lung cancer and reported that Han's close relatives were called to the hospital when he fell into a coma. AsiaNews, which also has close contacts in the underground church, quoted an unnamed priest in Han's Yongnian diocese.

"Why were the priests of his diocese not allowed to bless his remains, and together with his faithful, to pray for this heroic shepherd and to view his body?" asked the statement from the Cardinal Fung Foundation. "This is not only inhuman and atrocious but also suspicious."

There have been sporadic reports of the deaths in custody of bishops and other ranking priests in the underground church, many of whom are in their 70s or 80s.

Split from party-run church
Han was appointed by the Vatican as bishop of Yongnian Diocese in northern China's Hebei province, where he led underground Catholics, who reject the authority of the Communist Party-controlled Chinese Catholic church.

China's officially atheist communist government requires that Christians of all denominations worship in state-registered churches. Millions, however, instead worship in underground churches — known as "house churches" because services are often held in private homes — risking arrest, fines and official harassment.

The government-recognized church allows Catholics to hold the pope as their spiritual leader, but rejects the Vatican's insistence that only it can appoint bishops.

Bishops loyal to Rome are often appointed in secret, although Beijing and the Vatican have attempted to compromise in some cases by finding candidates acceptable to both. Beijing forced Chinese Catholics to cut ties to Rome in 1951, and the two sides have no diplomatic relations.

Born May 17, 1937, Han served 19 years in a labor camp starting in 1960, the foundation's statement said. AsiaNews said he was detained for "counterrevolutionary activities" and sent to a camp in northern China to work as a peasant. He was freed in 1979, was ordained a priest in 1986 and in 1989 was named unofficial bishop of Yongnian.

Reportedly detained 11 times
The foundation said Han was detained at least 11 times while serving as bishop, and that the last was in November 1999 while he was leading a religious retreat for nuns in Hebei's capital, Shijiazhuang.

After four years in prison, he was then taken to a police building where he was kept in isolation for another two years, AsiaNews and the Foundation said.

AsiaNews said he was treated with respect by the police and allowed to celebrate Mass, but forbidden contact with the outside world. In 2005, he was taken to an unknown location, and had not been heard from until his death, AsiaNews said.

An officer with the Yongnian Public Security Bureau who would only give his surname, Chen, said he had no knowledge of Han's case.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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