TANGSHAN, China -- Coadjutor Bishop Peter Fang Jianping of Tangshan has become the first Catholic bishop to carry the Olympic torch on its way to Beijing, after a Catholic priest did so in June.
Coadjutor Bishop Peter Fang Jianping of Tangshan, Hebei province, holds the Olympic relay torch on July 31.
Bishop Fang, 45, represented the Catholic Church in Tangshan during the July 31 torch relay in Tangshan, a city 180 kilometers east of the capital. The prelate was the eighth of 208 torch bearers during the relay's last leg in Hebei, the province that surrounds Beijing municipality.
The Beijing Summer Olympics are scheduled to begin on Aug. 8.
Bishop Fang told UCA News on Aug. 1 that he was invited to join this historical run in light of two developments.
Firstly, the Chinese government has made progress in recent years in carrying out its religious policies and in expressing concerns over religious issues to religious leaders, the prelate said.
Secondly, the local Church's active participation in social affairs has garnered the appreciation of the government and public, he said. "Because of the Church's contribution to the society, I was named a torchbearer."
Bishop Fang noted that Tangshan diocese, which has about 45,000 Catholics including 40 priests, has donated money and materials worth 150,000 yuan (about US$22,000) to the quake-stricken area in Sichuan through local religious department and charity bodies.
An 8.0-magnitude earthquake struck Sichuan on May 12. As of July 29, the government said 69,200 were confirmed killed in the disaster with 18,195 still missing.
Tangshan experienced a 7.8 magnitude quake on July 28, 1976, that claimed around 240,000 lives.
Bishop Fang shared that many local Catholics who saw the live TV broadcast of the relay told him they were overjoyed and heartened to see their bishop taking part in the event.
Torchbearers are allowed keep the torch as a souvenir after their run, but some have sold or donated it. Bishop Fang said he will keep this "precious spiritual legacy."
The bishop, a Hebei native, was ordained a priest in 1989. He was ordained a bishop in Beijing on Jan. 6, 2000, without papal approval. In 2002, the Holy See legitimized his episcopal status. He has worked with 89-year-old Bishop John Liu Jinghe of Tangshan, and has been a deputy of the National People's Congress, China's parliament, since last March.
Two other religious leaders also were torchbearers in Tangshan.
Imam Han Shujun, the 42nd torchbearer, has served at a mosque in Tangshan's Kaiping district since 1989. The Muslim prayer leader is currently president of Tangshan Islam Association.
Reverend Jin Yunpeng, chairperson of the Hebei Protestant Church's Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee, was the 161st torchbearer. He has set up a Protestant training center, a Church newspaper, an orphanage and a charity clinic in Hebei. Both he and Imam Han are members of the provincial People's Political Consultative Conference.
The torch relay in Tangshan was held in two stages, according to the official Beijing Olympics website (http://en.beijing2008.cn). The first stage, which spanned 2.7 kilometers, aimed to honor Sichuan quake relief efforts. Fifty-nine people carried the torch here, some of whom had joined in rescue operations in Sichuan.
The second stage, covering 7.4 kilometers, was held in Caofeidian Industrial Zone, a large-scale industrial area still under construction.
Earlier, on June 26, Father Paul Meng Ningyou, vicar general of Taiyuan diocese, took part in the torch relay in Taiyuan city, capital of Shanxi province, which neighbors Hebei to the west.
According to a report on the Chinese Protestant Church website, five Protestant pastors have taken part in the torch relay.
A total of about 21,880 Olympic torchbearers in and outside China have taken part in the relay since it began in March in Greece.