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AsiaNews – While there are signs of improvement in ties between the Vatican and Bejing, the Hebei government has launched a new campaign of persecution against the clandestine Catholic Church throughout the region. The campaign aims to have all Catholics, especially bishops and priests, registered with the State Office for Religious Affairs and to make them sign up to the Patriotic Association. “It seems we have gone back to the times of the Cultural Revolution, with intransigence and persecution,” was the view of one believer.

Hebei is the region with the largest number of Catholics (more than 1.5 million), where clandestine Catholics (not recognised by the government) are in strong majority. The campaign is backed by the Religious Affairs Office and by the police. Some government representatives have told unofficial bishops that “from now on, all the clergy, to distribute the sacraments, must have a special membership card conceded by the government.” The motive behind this, say the representatives, is to unite the clandestine church with the official church which, in line with the prompting of the Holy See, are leaning more and more towards collaboration and unity. Many bishops of the unofficial church have given indications of participation in the Eucharist with official communities. Until a few years ago, such an admission would have been unthinkable.

The response of the bishops to police pressure in Hebei has been to say that they can accept the membership card from the government but that it is not possible to ask them to join forces with the official church because this would imply registering with the Patriotic Association. The AP is an organisation at the service of the Party, which monitors the faithful. One of its aims, laid down in its statute is that of making a national church grow and flourish, detached from ties with the Holy See. The refusal of bishops to participate is therefore motivated by a faith and canon law. In the show of strength which has ensued, government representatives are threatening prison for all.

The bishop has asked government representatives to leave them free to find their own ways and time to build unity. The representatives replied that they want unity now and not in the future and they threatened with arms those who disobeyed. A bishop heard it said: “We are communists, we have guns and we are armed!” This is just what the mafia would have done, he said. According to many among Hebei ’s faithful, the zeal of the police and government representatives could only be explained in one way: if they manage to smite the unofficial church, absorbing it into the AP, they will receive a prize from the central government.

But there is another hidden reason: unity would not be realised by the patience and freedom of the communities, but imposed from outside, making it clear that it could only be achieved by the force of a religious affairs office and by the Patriotic Association. “If we unite by ourselves,” one bishop told AsiaNews, “they lose work and wages because there would not longer be anything to control”.

While China awaits the Olympics and moves ahead in the XXI century, the persecution under way in Hebei recalls the style of the Communist Party in the fifties under Mao Zedong; these Stalinist attitudes “put the government in a bad light”, say believers. If bishops are thrown into prison, they add, there will nothing else to do but to appeal to the world – as has already been done in an AsiaNews campaign for others – and to accuse the government of Hebei .