ROME – Days before the week of prayer for Catholics in China began Sunday, several clergy and seminarians in the country were arrested for holding services without the permission of the country’s Communist authorities.

In 2007, then-Pope Benedict XVI published a lengthy letter to Catholics in China in which he designated May 24, the feast of Our Lady Help of Christians, as an annual global day of prayer for the Catholic Church in China.

Earlier this year, Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon, Myanmar, President of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) asked that the entire week of May 23-30 be observed as a time of prayer for China, saying “We should ask Our Lady of Sheshan to protect all humanity and therefore the dignity of each and every person in China.”

“It is right that we should pray not only for the church but for all persons in the People’s Republic of China,” he said, voicing hope that China “continues to rise as a global power” and becomes “a force for good and a protector of the rights of the most vulnerable and marginalized in the world.”

Pope Francis in his May 23 Regina Coeli address gave Chinese Catholics a shout-out, congratulating them for the feast of Our Lady Help of Christians, who he said “is invoked assiduously” by Chinese Catholic families.

“How good and necessary it is that members of a family a Christian community be even more united in love and faith,” he said, urging Catholic faithful around the world to pray for Christians in China, who he called, “our dear brothers and sisters, whom I hold deeply in my heart.”

“May the Holy Spirit, protagonist of the Church’s mission throughout the world, guide them and help them to be bearers of the good news, witnesses of goodness and charity, and builders of justice and peace in their homeland,” the pope said.

However, May 20, days before the week of prayer began, the bishop of Xinxiang, Giuseppe Zhang Weizhu, 63, was arrested along with seven priests and 10 seminarians from the diocese under new regulations for religious activities that went into force May 1.

RELATED: China’s new oversight body fuels fears about religious freedom

According to AsiaNews, around 100 policemen from the Hebei province surrounded a building used as the diocesan seminary in the early afternoon, arresting those who were attending lessons and confiscating the personal effects of those who were detained.

Those arrested were reportedly taken to a hotel where they are being held in solitary confinement and are undergoing so-called “political sessions” meant to instill the principles of the Chinese Communist Party.

In China, the new regulations allow religious activities to take place, including theology lessons in seminaries, only at facilities formally registered with the government, pledging allegiance to the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), rather than the Holy See.

Since the 1949 Communist takeover of China, Catholicism in the country has been split between an “official” church that cooperates with the government and an “underground” church which resists its control.

Bishop Zhang, who has led the Xinxiang diocese since 1991, is recognized by the Holy See, but is not registered with the CCPA, and is therefore considered a “criminal” under the new regulations, as are the other arrestees, who have refused to adhere to membership of the CCPA.

The Vatican’s 2018 provisional agreement with China on the appointment of bishops, which was renewed for an additional two years in October 2020 and which is believed to allow both the Chinese government and the Holy See to have a say in episcopal appointments, has been touted by the Vatican as an attempt to put an end to these incidents by uniting Catholics in China under one roof.

However, skeptics have long argued that such an agreement is futile, and that the Chinese government is using the agreement to further crack down on Catholics, as well as other religious communities.

Those who resist the move continue to evade formal registration, citing fears that the more accommodating the Holy See is, and the more Catholics cede to the Chinese Communist Party’s demands, the more religious freedom in the country will be stifled.

China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims, of Tibetan monks, and its tightening grip on Hong Kong are all frequently cited as examples of why the Holy See’s agreement with China is ultimately in vain, despite the repeated insistence by Vatican officials that something had to be done, and that patience is needed to see what the final result will be.

Pope Francis’s prayer Sunday that Catholics in China “be even more united in love and faith,” then, is a timely request, but if last week’s arrests show anything, it’s that actually getting Catholics on the same page and under one roof is a task which, if not impossible, is a problem the Vatican will likely have to grapple with for some time.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen