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Catholics in China, the unofficial story

Christl Dabu

ICC Note: Here is one persons look into the life of an underground Christian in China

1/7/07 China For Full Story go to (The Toronto Star) On my way to my first Catholic mass in China , I kept a little secret.

The woman who gave me directions to the Beijing service, also a foreigner, reminded me to tell the guards I was going to a “private party.”

Knowing of the “underground” church’s troubles and the tight grip on religion in this officially atheist country, I took a taxi to the residential building with trepidation.

As a Canadian journalist working in China , I was stepping into sensitive territory on that day in August 2005.

Although Chinese and expatriate Catholics are free to worship at government-approved venues, unregulated religious gatherings can be shut down and participants arrested.

But this private mass for foreigners was apparently condoned by the authorities, who are said to be increasingly tolerant of religious activities so long as they don’t involve Chinese believers.

The Catholic church in China , whose members account for an estimated 1 per cent of the nation’s 1.3 billion people, is divided into two communities:

The state-controlled official or “open” church registers its places of worship and is affiliated with the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the government-created organization that monitors and supervises its activities.

The unofficial or “underground” community isn’t registered, avoids monitoring and supervision and is considered illegal. It accepts only the authority of the Pope, his representatives and its own clergy loyal to Rome while rejecting all government-appointed religious officials, including bishops installed by the patriotic association.

However church insiders say the divisions are blurred, with most bishops from the state-controlled church now having received the Pope’s approval.

Diplomatic ties between Beijing and the Vatican – severed in 1951 after Mao Zedong expelled the papal nuncio in a purge of anti-communist foreigners – have not been re-established.

The Vatican has issued a “clear invitation” to reopen diplomatic channels with China , says Rev. Bernardo Cervellera, director of AsiaNews service, which monitors religious rights issues in China , but there have been recent setbacks, including the escalation of tensions when three Chinese bishops were appointed without papal consent last year, including one on Nov. 30.

In a telephone interview from Rome , Cervellera said Beijing won’t accept the Nicene Creed’s declaration that all Catholics belong to “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” church because of the “divide-and-rule policy” it uses to maintain control.

Just before Mandarin mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church on St. Patrick St. in downtown Toronto , a 29-year-old Chinese Catholic agrees to an interview but is afraid to give his name, saying he’s on Beijing ‘s blacklist.

The 29-year-old says he is seeking asylum in Canada from the religious persecution he suffered as an underground Catholic in Fujian province. Two years ago, he says, officials busted his group and imprisoned some members while others went into hiding.

He recounted how the worshippers met randomly in small venues or homes of parishioners, gathering after dark.

They spoke in code – using “boss” for priest and “come for a drink” for going to mass – and spread the word of the next gathering via clandestine cellphone calls to avoid detection.

“And when we came together, it was always with fear and anxiety … to worship in secret because we didn’t know when we would be reported on,” he says through an interpreter, keeping his head down and fiddling with his jacket button during most of the interview.

“A person’s belief should be a person’s freedom of choice, and the government shouldn’t restrict it to choose where, how or when he needs to worship because of his belief.”

Though China ‘s 1982 constitution specifies freedom of religious belief, a high-level church official in Hong Kong says the Chinese need clear laws that are not subject to the interpretation of local authorities.

“The government tolerates religion but wants to maintain a high degree of control,” the church official, who requested anonymity, wrote in an email from Hong Kong .

“Chinese can go into their room, close the door, and believe anything they want. But the government wants to control public worship, defining `normal religious activities’ and restricting them to registered venues.

“This limited space for religion is not enough freedom … there are so many regulations that local officials can always find a rule to use against a group they do not like.”

Joseph Kung, president of the Cardinal Kung Foundation, a U.S.-based advocacy group for the Chinese underground church, paints a bleaker picture of the situation.

“People think because the Chinese economy is getting better, their human rights policy is getting better. It’s not true,” Kung said in a phone interview from Stamford , Conn.

“A lot of bishops are still in jail because they refuse to register with the official church …. Cardinal Kung was in jail for 32 1/2 years. He was sentenced to life in prison because he refused to register with the Patriotic Association, because he refused to cut relations with the Pope.”

More than a year after my “secret” first mass in Beijing , I still sometimes feel on tiptoes when it comes to the subject of religious freedom in China .

Back in Canada , I no longer had to censor myself as I did, even around close friends, in China . But I’m still careful with emails to people in China , remembering warnings about government monitoring.

Beijing may want to sweep the church’s problems under the rug, but analysts say the Vatican considers both the official and underground communities as one church and is working with Chinese Catholics toward greater unity.

As the Hong Kong church official told me: “The situation is not black and white but grey, with much ambiguity.”