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Church freedom is a mixed bag in China

HIJIAZHUANG (UCAN): When about 10,000 people showed up to a Mass held at the cathedral in Zhengding on December 13 they filled the church compound and overflowed onto the roof of an adjacent building.

Some had travelled the 300 kilometres from Beijing, but the most striking thing was that they were almost all members of the unofficial Church community of China and, despite police presence, no one was detained.

While Christians and rights groups criticise the president, Xi Jinping, for overseeing the worst religious persecution in more than a generation, Catholic people in Hebei appear to enjoy a certain leeway—at least by Chinese standards.

Home to an estimated 3.9 million Catholics, according to Hong Kong-based Asia Harvest, Hebei has seen relatively few recent cases of persecution. Only two incidents have been recorded over the past 30 months by China Aid, a United States of America (US)-based group tracking abuse against Christians in China.

In Zhejiang, whose 2.35 million member Church represents the second-largest Catholic population in the country, dozens of cases were recorded over the same period as authorities removed over 1,500 crosses from both Protestant and Catholic churches.

“The Zhejiang and Hebei difference is evidence of the disarray in the Chinese Communist Party religious policy,” Yang Fenggang, the director of the Centre on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University in the US says.

Xi is due to lead a meeting of the central government to draw up a uniform, nationwide programme for managing religions, but this seems to have been delayed. Yang says that even if Beijing does come up with a central policy to manage Christianity and other religions, differences in practice remain inevitable.

At every administrative level in China, what you can and can’t do typically depends on guanxi, or relationship, with the Communist Party.

Faith Press, which is based in Shijiazhuang, is estimated to produce the largest circulated Catholic newspaper in China. In 1997, it claimed a readership of 43,000 across the country.

Operating out of the same office building, Jinde Charities calls itself the first Catholic charitable organisation registered by the government since the Communists took power in 1949.

In a sign of just how good Jinde’s guanxi is with the government, staff have in recent years appeared at HIV/AIDS seminars with Xi’s famous opera-singing wife, Peng Liyuan, a goodwill ambassador for the World Health Organisation.

By contrast, Xi has regularly urged ordinary Chinese to shun faiths deemed foreign, such as Christianity and Islam, in favour of traditional Chinese religions.

“Hebei has a strong Catholic population. People of strong faith can also be good citizens of China,” Father Robert Carbonneau, the executive director of the US-Catholic-China Bureau in Berkeley, California, said.

Getting to the bottom of how exactly the Church in Hebei manages relations with party officials remains difficult. Priests in cities, including Shijiazhuang and Xianxian, say relations are good, but few are willing to explain how this delicate balancing act is maintained. Often the Church appears to play the party at its own game.

He said that at one old-age home run by the authorities in Hebei, conditions used to be awful. The more than 100 elderly people living there were not properly cared for.

So a priest began bestowing regular gifts on the manager of the home to gain access and help out in caring for the elderly residents. Meanwhile, he has carried out dozens of baptisms. About one-third of the home’s inhabitants have already been confirmed as Catholic.

“Staff at the home don’t know we are baptising people there, it is done in secret,” the priest said.

The Church hasn’t always managed to work with the system in Hebei. A school tucked behind Xianxian cathedral had been mixing the national curriculum with religious instruction. But an education inspector acting on an apparent tip-off told the school to stop in May.

Although unofficial Church people have largely escaped persecution in Hebei in recent years, the clergy have not—a sign of the limits of religious freedom across China.

Bishop Cosmas Shi Enxiang, from Yixian, was thought to have died last January after spending about half of his 94 years in detention, people close to his family said. But a government authority later denied he had passed away, but refused to confirm his location.

The bishop’s punishment included hard labour in freezing Heilongjiang province, after he continually refused to join the government Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

The only other two bishops in secret detention in China also languish somewhere in Hebei. Bishop James Su Zhimin, from Baoding, was first arrested 20 years ago, after he too refused to join the Patriotic Association, and has not been seen since 2003. The coadjutor Bishop Cui Tai, from Xuanhua, disappeared after his arrest in August 2014.

Relations between the Vatican and Chinese government reached a low in November 2010, when Hebei authorities proceeded with the episcopal ordination of Father Joseph Guo Jincai in Chengde without papal approval, the first in four years.

Pope Benedict “received the news with deep regret,” said a rare Vatican statement taking issue with China’s government.

A new Catholic retreat house and martyrs’ graveyard in Xianxian serves as a reminder of the trying times the Church has faced and how it has prospered more recently in Hebei.

The tombs of two French missionaries stand here following their deaths at the hands of the Boxer Rebellion that swept violent anti-foreigner and anti-Christian feeling through China around 1900. The head of St. Remi Isore was hung at the entrance of Wuyi village in a warning to other Catholics.

During the Cultural Revolution, which ended in the mid-1970s, the graveyard was desecrated and the bodies of around 100 priests lost. Their gravestones were found years later, smashed after being used for flooring in a nearby factory and road junction.

In 2010, when the Church was looking to build the centre and cemetery, relations with Hebei authorities were so bad amid a spat over ordinations that permission was declined. Finally, last year, the centre was built and the cemetery inaugurated in November.

“Relations with authorities are now good,” a priest said, in explaining the graveyard’s turbulent history. “We do have some freedom here.”


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