VATICAN CITY—China's communist leadership has outlined plans for a full-scale crackdown on the country's underground Catholic Church should diplomatic ties be re-established with the Vatican, according to Fides, the Vatican's missionary news service.

The claim was made as new reports reached the West of a new round of arrests of Catholics and members of other religious groups

The plan outlined by Fides Nov. 10 calls for the destruction of underground churches, seminaries and convents and the “re-education” through hard labor of underground clerics who fail to submit to the government-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association.

Fides said it obtained from sources in Beijing large sections of a secret 16-page policy paper prepared by the Communist Party's central committee.

Citing “new currents of change” toward re-establishing ties with the Vatican, the document underscores the importance of reinforcing the party-controlled patriotic church.

Chinese Catholics were split in 1957 over the setting up by the government of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which rejects papal authority and elects bishops without Vatican approval. An underground Church in China professes loyalty to the Pope.

The document, dated Aug. 16, 1999, contains no timetable for renewing ties with the Vatican, according to Fides. News reports from Hong Kong in recent weeks have claimed that secret Sino-Vatican negotiations have reached a breakthrough, with relations to be re-established by the end of 1999.

Both the Vatican and China have denied the reports. China also reiterated two longstanding conditions to normalization: that the Vatican break off ties with Taiwan and pledge to “not interfere in internal Chinese affairs under the pretext of religion,” most critically meaning the appointment of bishops.

The Vatican has called the latter condition unacceptable.

According to Fides, the secret document says the Chinese Church must be kept independent from the Vatican “at all costs.”

“The Vatican will try to take advantage of the normalization of relations between China and the Vatican to deny the right of independence, sovereignty and autonomy in the [state-controlled] church and work to regain power over the Catholic Church in China,” Fides quoted the document as saying.

Measures suggested by the document include reinforcing the role of the Patriotic Association in governing all Catholic activities. The bishops of the Patriotic Church would continue to be subject to the voted decisions of the Conference of Representatives of the Catholic Church, made up mostly of lay people.

“In this manner,” Fides said, “decisions of a religious character are placed under political pressures, and the ‘democracy’ is in reality obedience to the [Communist] Party.”

Fides said China's communist leaders saw renewed ties with the Vatican as a chance to incorporate the majority of underground Catholics into the official church. It is important, the document said, “to be vigilant so that the hardened core of the underground Church, coming out of clandestineness, does not take power in the Patriotic Church.”

Priests and bishops who refused to submit to the government-controlled church would be “forcefully re-educated with individual labor,” Fides quoted the document as saying. Those who committed illegal activities, like celebrating Mass without permission, would be “treated severely by police authorities,” the document continued.

The policy paper said that a normalization of relations with the Vatican brought a high risk of civil disturbance. Demonstrations “of religious fervor” and celebrations were to be prohibited. During the “normalization period,” the construction of new churches was not to be permitted, the document said.

In an editorial accompanying Fides’ report, Father Bernardo Cervellera, the news agency's director, said that the document “confirms China's almost spasmodic interest in relations with the Holy See, but also confirms the regime's obtuseness in understanding full religious liberty.”

Vatican diplomatic sources said rumors of an imminent Sino-Vatican accord seemed to indicate a Chinese desire to at least face the question of diplomatic relations. But the source, speaking in early November, said talk of secret negotiations was “ridiculous,” as were claims of a breakthrough.

Noting that China continues to insist on independence from the Vatican for the nation's Catholics, the source said that “nothing has changed [in the diplomatic arena] as far as the Vatican is concerned.”

ZENIT, the Rome-based news service, reported that four out of eight priests in the Wenzhou diocese in Zhejiang province, including Bishop Giacomo Lin Xili, were arrested in October.

The action may have caused the death of a man in his 60s following the arrest of one of the priests. The layman, who lived in Wenzhou, died Oct. 21 after learning that three policemen had taken his local pastor, Father Kong Guocun, into custody.

The reason for the arrests was not made public, but it is widely believed that the authorities want to coerce Catholic clergy and laity faithful to Rome to join the Patriotic Church. A local Catholic source said the Catholic Patriotic Association of Zhejiang province has formed “groups” with this objective.

ZENIT reported that Bishop Xie Shiguang of Mindong, in Fujian province, was subjected to interrogation by government officials in mid-October and that his whereabouts are unknown.

It has also become apparent that Bishop Julius Jia Zhiguo of Zhengding — missing since August — is under arrest and not likely to be released soon, sources say.

Sources quoted an underground priest in northern China as saying Nov. 4 that public security officials had asked Bishop Jia's relatives to send him winter clothes and a quilt, implying that the bishop may be detained for some time.

The priest, who was ordained by Bishop Jia, said the request had been made a few days earlier, reported UCA News, an Asian church news agency based in Thailand. Zhengding Diocese is in Hebei province, in northern China.

Bishop Jia will probably not be released soon because the government does not want him to preside at a planned late-December Mass celebrating the beginning of the new millennium, the sources told UCA News.

Bishop Jia has been imprisoned many times, and his combined jail terms total about 20 years, according to A.P. (From combined wire services)