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Path to unity may not be a happy one

HARBIN (UCAN): The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has shown in some quarters that the path towards ecumenical relations may not always be a happy one.

Joseph Chen discovered while preparing a booklet for a prayer service to be held in eastern Zhejiang during the week, which ran from January 18 to 25 this year, that among his Catholic friends there was far more than a mild disinterest.

The young Chen had downloaded some of the official prayers prepared by the international ecumenical committee in Latvia from the Internet, but then discovered that the Chinese translation used terms which are common to Protestants, not Catholics.

“When I showed the booklet to my fellow parishioners, their faces darkened. They were irked that I used the Protestant version,” Chen said.

However, the prayer gathering he planned was not a parish activity. “It was just among friends,” he said, adding, “our parish does not hold such things.”

During the week of prayer, only two people showed up at Chens gatherings, which followed a theme based on the writings of St. Peter, Called to Proclaim the Mighty Acts of the Lord (Peter 2:9), the same as used by Christians around the world over.

Despite Christians having a huge presence in Zhejiang, little has been done in promoting ecumenism or unity among the Churches. There are an estimated two million Protestants and 210,000 Catholics in the coastal province, where more than 1,500 crosses were removed by government authorities from Church buildings over the past two years.

Before the Catholic Church was affected by the cross-removal campaign, some parishioners criticised the Catholic media for covering the removal of crosses from Protestant churches, saying, “It is is none of our business.”

However, when the crosses also tumbled from the Catholic churches, they sang a different tune.

In neighbouring Jiangsu province, a priest who identified himself as Father James said Christian Churches in China generally do nothing about ecumenism. “Some denominations more or less regard each other as competitors,” Father James explained.

In northeastern Heilongjiang, Christianity once flourished in Harbin City due to its past close relations with Russia. There is a Russian Orthodox church, a Protestant church and a Catholic church on the same street.

However, a Catholic in Harbin, who identified herself as Maria, said there is little interaction between the various denominations.

“We have a lot of work to do internally as our community is still developing,” Maria said. “So promotion of Christian unity has a very low priority.”

Marian added, “We all know of each other’s existence, but there is no cooperation between us. We only meet each other when there are high-level meetings organised by the government for religions.”

She also explained that the Orthodox church is now only for use by Russians and other foreigners.

In China’s Protestant Churches, many had never heard of the week of prayer for unity that was initiated by an Anglican priest in the United States of America, Father Paul Wattson, in 1908. For those who do know, the road to unity is also difficult.

A Protestant lay leader from Jiangsu province said she agrees there is a need for dialogue among Christians, “but can everyone talk to each other calmly and peacefully?” she asks.

Identifying herself as Elizabeth, she gave the example of a young Catholic who came to their community in Suzhou recently.

“He could not find another worshipping place after he came here. Since he gets along well with our children here, we readily accepted him and we worship together,” Elizabeth explained.

“But his mother back home felt unhappy after learning about this and ordered him not to come anymore. So you see. We have a gap,” she said.

Elizabeth too was influenced by the previous denomination that she joined when she was young. “They told me that the Catholic Church is anti-Christ,” she said, adding that it wasn’t until she studied Christian history that she took a fairer view of Catholicism. “I need to reflect and repent too,” she said.

“If we Christians could get along peacefully in the first place, patiently wait for the return of our brothers and sisters in Christ, and be willing to make sacrifices, the situation of the Christian Churches in China may be very different today… who knows,” she concluded.


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