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Christians in China are preparing for the funeral of Catholic Bishop Thomas Zhang Huaixin who died at age 90 after a turbulent life that included decades of persecution for his faith in Christ and his rejection of government control over church affairs.

Bishop Zhang Huaixin of Anyang eventually accepted government recognition in 2004 after receiving assurances that he would not be forced to join the state-backed Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.

Zhang Huaixin made clear that he did not want to join the association as it was set up by the Communist government to supervise Chinese Catholics. The Vatican has also condemned the organisation.

Bishop Zhang was born on 23rd May, 1925, and ordained in 1950. He was deemed a "rightist" by the government in 1958 and suffered for his faith during the political turmoil that lasted for decades until 1978, according to several sources.

He also spent six years in China's notorious labour camps.

After his rehabilitation in 1980, Zhang Huaixin was secretly ordained bishop of Anyang the following year and lived and worked without government recognition. As an elderly, recognised bishop, he remained a role model for Catholics, his supporters say.

"I was most impressed by his teaching on money and women," Priest Li Jisheng of Anyang said in published remarks. "He used to remind us clergy that there will be no problem with our clerical life as long as the ledger is clear, having little desire on wealth, and keeping a distance from women."

The funeral Mass for Bishop Zhang Huaixin was to be celebrated in the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Anyang on 14th May. "The late bishop had suffered from diabetes and a heart problem for years. He was rushed to hospital on 6th May after he complained of dizziness," Li added.

The priest said he visited Bishop Zhang Huaixin the day before he died, showing him archived photos of him as a young seminarian. "He had a clear mind when we visited him on May 7...He could recognise his classmates and the seminary rector," he recalled.

Coadjutor Bishop Joseph Zhang Yinlin, 45, automatically succeeds him, according to canon law. The young prelate was the first Chinese bishop with dual approval from China and the Vatican since 2012, according to Catholic sources.

Due to the elderly Bishop Zhang's stance, when Bishop Zhang Yinlin was ordained in 2015, all bishops involved in the ceremony were Vatican-approved. Catholics said there was no pressure to allow "an illicitly ordained bishop" to take part, as happened at some other episcopal ordinations in China.

Catholics say the Anyang Diocese has developed well under the leadership of Bishop Zhang and now has 30 priests and 129 nuns from St Joseph Convent serving 50,000 Catholics.

Bishop Zhang Yinlin is the second bishop to die in 2016 after Bishop Thomas Zeng Jingmu died on 2nd April, bringing the total number to 110 bishops, including active and retired.

Yet his funeral comes amid ongoing tensions between churches and local Communist authorities in several parts of China, including reports of removal of crosses from churches and destruction of church buildings.

Additionally, several church leaders remain imprisoned. They include Bishop James Su Zhimin, 84, who has been detained bars since 1997 for his faith, according to friends and family.

His family reportedly discovered him by chance at a hospital in Baoding city, some 154 kilometres outside Beijing, in 2003. He has not been seen in public since.

Leading a prayer service in front of China's Hong Kong liaison office, Hong Kong’s retired bishop, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun urged Beijing last month to end "the persecution of Christians" and allow religious freedom. “Facing all this persecution, we cannot take it for granted. We cannot stand idly. If we keep silent, we are accomplices," Cardinal Zen told a group of about 100 people who reportedly attended the 24th April service.

The same day Hong Kong's diocesan Justice and Peace Commission announced the conclusion of a petition campaign asking Pope Francis to pray for religious freedom and an end to religious persecution in China.

At least several Communist authorities have expressed concern about the spread of Christianity in Communist-ruled China, with some estimates saying there may be as many as 130 million devoted Christians in the country.

- with STEFAN J BOS