Chinese defy government to practice Catholicism Pastors, congregation risk threat of prison

March 01, 1998|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TIANJIN, China -- In the suburbs of this port city of more than 9 million lies a small Catholic church that is so packed on Sunday mornings that the service is piped through loudspeakers so an overflow crowd of elderly Chinese can sing along as they kneel on the concrete courtyard outside.

Dressed in threadbare Mao suits and clutching rosaries, the congregation of more than 200 listen intently to their defiant pastor. Local officials forbid him from recognizing the pope's authority, but he does so anyway. They originally assigned him to another parish more than 60 miles away, but he refused to go.

"I didn't listen to the government," he nervously tells a pair of visitors he meets in secret while the congregation recites the stations of the cross.

After a church member he suspects of being an informant begins to eavesdrop, he abruptly ends the conversation. Even though the government officially recognizes his church, the priest is afraid of criticizing China in the foreign press and won't allow his name to be used.

Considering the political atmosphere here, it's not surprising.

Chinese officials claim their nation has 10 million Protestants and 4 million Catholics, although Vatican-affiliated Catholic Church sources estimate the number at about 10 million, and many of them continue to live in fear.

"In some areas, security authorities used bribes, threats, demolition of unregistered property, extortion and interrogation to harass religious figures and followers," according to the U.S. State Department's Human Rights Report released last month.

Clergy under arrest

American businessman and human rights activist John Kamm said recently that the government had detained dozens of Roman Catholic priests and bishops since 1993.

Last October, police picked up underground Catholic Bishop Su Zhimin, 65. He remains under house arrest in Baoding, a city in North China's Hebei province, according to church sources.

Earlier in the fall, police reportedly demolished a so-called "house" church on the border of Heilongjiang province and Inner Mongolia in Northeast China.

With increased pressure from Congress to hold China accountable for its treatment of religious groups, a delegation of U.S. religious leaders is here for a three-week, fact-finding mission -- the first ever authorized by both governments. The delegation includes a Catholic archbishop, a rabbi and an evangelical minister.

At the very least they should find that despite government scrutiny, harassment and even the threat of prison, hundreds of thousands of Chinese Catholics continue to recognize the pope as their ultimate authority and worship at so-called "underground" churches.

Some gather in private homes. Others meet in government-registered churches such as the one in Tianjin.

China's government seems more intent these days on keeping a tight grip on religion than trying to wipe it out. Seven months after Hong Kong's handover, the territory's Catholic diocese of 270,000 remains independent of the state-approved church.

A report last fall by Human Rights Watch-Asia, a New York-based group, noted arrests of religious activists but said that long prison terms and beatings appeared to have declined on the mainland in recent years.

The government wants to "show the outside world that they respect human rights," says a 28-year-old Tianjin man who attends both registered and underground churches. "They also recognize that you can't extinguish the fire of religion."

The history of Christianity in China stretches back hundreds of years. The pope sent emissaries as early as the 13th century; Jesuit and Protestant missionaries followed in the 17th and 19th centuries, respectively.

After the Communist takeover in 1949, the government established official organizations to try to control the church.

The Catholic Patriotic Association took its cues from Beijing, but most of China's Catholics remained loyal to the Vatican. Many were persecuted, sometimes with the help of priests from the official church -- contributing to a bitter split which continues in some provinces to this day.

Secret connections

Although historical animosity and allegiances divide the two branches of China's Catholic Church, they often maintain connections beneath the surface. Over the years, the pope has secretly recognized bishops in the official church.

Thousands of Catholics attend services at both government-sanctioned and underground houses of worship. And, in some cities, priests from both sides even work together.

Step into the government-approved Cathedral of Our Savior in West Beijing on a Sunday morning, and you can see hundreds of parishioners using the same liturgy as do members of the underground church. Although the official church does not recognize the pope as its ultimate authority, the priest at Our Savior still treats him as its spiritual head.

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