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Beijing silent but Catholics talk on Cultural Revolution anniversary

HONG KONG (SE): In the run up to the 50th anniversary of the declaration of the Cultural Revolution by the then-all-powerful chairman of the Communist Party of China, Mao Zedong, Beijing not only remained quiet, but furtively silent.

A 10-year period of tumult that saw almost two million people perish, with over one million categorised as traitors and imprisoned or committing suicide, was declared just 50 years ago on 16 May 1966.

It came to an end a long decade later, as Mao and his Gang of Four were declared to have been in error and Deng Xiaoping began the arduous task of rebuilding the nation on a different foundation.

As a period of Chinese history rarely mentioned by the authorities in Beijing, it still remains obscured today, as even the one museum dedicated to the period was covered with exhibits of modern propaganda and scaffolding on the day of the anniversary.

But while Communist Party leadership may have been silent, members of Churches that came under extreme persecution were not.

Christians were lumped together with intellectuals, landowners and academics as enemies of the people, and Catholics in particular were regarded as counter-revolutionaries.

But today, in contrast to the silence of the successors of the officials who promoted the persecution, the successors of the persecuted have plenty to say.

Officialdom in Beijing remained tight-lipped on the day of the anniversary until the hour was late, when the People’s Daily broke the silence with an article published online.

It said little, other than urging people to fix their memories on the historic lessons of the Cultural Revolution.

However, most media outlets kept their counsel, saying whatever it was that they wanted to say to themselves and not their audience.

Much of the suffering and bloodshed undergone by the Catholic Church has also been obscured by the party, as it went about containing the fallout from the Cultural Revolution when it ended in 1976, the year Mao’s presence on this earth ended as well.

However, UCAN reported that recent books have begun to shed light on a fuller extent of the suffering endured by the Church, including the Red Book of Chinese Martyrs by Italian author, Gerolamo Fazzini, that sources previously unpublished Catholic diaries from the period.

“During these periods of the dark night of my soul, caused by the mental and physical stresses of the Communist persecution, I suffered so much that I thought there could not be anything worse,” Father John Huang Yongmu, a priest who spent the Cultural Revolution in a factory in northern China where 1,000 detainees committed suicide, wrote.

Churches were knocked down while others were used for housing weapons for battles that raged across the country, as priests were detained, tortured and killed in an orgy of violence that engulfed the entire population. 

An estimated two million died in that period, mostly murdered, killed in fighting or simply perishing from starvation.

In echoes of enduring problems facing the Chinese Church today, the clergy were forced to renounce the Vatican as an outside, corrupting force against Communism. 

Religion only existed inside the hearts of the faithful during this period, as overt worship was all but banned.

“Even those who signed to accept an independent Church could not save themselves from suffering, as was the case with all religions,” a Catholic from an unofficial community recalled.

People of faith and the churches in which they worshipped alike were stripped of everything. Church buildings became storerooms, factories or homes. Religious artefacts were destroyed.

Bishops, brothers, sisters and priests, even those who had signed up with the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, were arrested and sent to forced labour camps or prison.

AsiaNews reported that one priest, Father Antonio Li Daoning, objected to the contents of a church being burned in the plaza, saying that the people were patriots. He was beaten up and his body thrown onto the flames to be reduced to ashes along with the sacred vestments and holy books.

A succession of priests and sisters were tortured and died, and even a convent of sisters running a school for the diplomatic corps in Beijing was attacked and beaten.

AsiaNews recounts, “One was whipped so hard in the face that she almost lost one of her eyes. The next day they were tried and the foreign nuns expelled, the Chinese sentenced to 20 years in prison.”

On reaching Lowu on the Hong Kong border, Sister Molly O’Sullivan was so exhausted with fever that she passed out. The Chinese guards threw her on a cart that the sisters had to push across the bridge.

She was taken to hospital in Hong Kong, but died the next day.

Others remember the furtive faith that was cherished in the dark of night. A university professor from Xi’an recalled being woken in the middle of the night as a child and trudging across frozen fields to a darkened house where Mass was celebrated.

He said that he was warned never to speak of it and that he had been taught no religious language whatsoever, lest he let the cat out of the bag with his childish prattle.

UCAN reported that the grandfather of Sima Hui, the pen name of a priest in Shaanxi, who worked as a doctor in the 1960s, had two Red Guards standing outside the door of his clinic throughout the day.

Only at night when he was sure no one was watching would the doctor lock his door, unfold a secretly stashed portrait of Our Lady of Lourdes, then pin the image to a board before starting to pray.

“Many years later, the pin holes on the portrait show how faith was maintained during this difficult era,” Sima reflected. “This faith was the most precious thing he left us.”

In one picture taken in Beijing in the summer of 1966, a row of sisters dressed in white bow their heads as ordinary civilians surround them holding copies of the Little Red Book above their heads, fists clenched.

Other images from Tianjin show priests tied up on a stage wearing their vestments, encircled by a baying mob of Red Guards. 

Another picture of the Xikai Church in Tianjin shows a portrait of Mao placed above the main doorway flanked by Communist slogans of the time, including hei jiao (black church).

“They would go inside the church, they would gut all of its statues,” Anthony Clark, an associate professor of Chinese history at Whitworth University in Spokane, the United States of America, says. “Typically one of the first targets was the tabernacle. They would bring the tabernacle out onto the steps and would destroy it.”

Rank and file Catholics were not spared either. As the Communists forced them to denounce their faith, some pronounced they were no longer Christians. Others prayed in secret, as doing so in the open was simply too dangerous.

“I come from a Catholic family of several generations,” Father Sun Zongde, from Xichang in Sichuan province, said. “My grandparents died in suffering.”

Bishop Ignatius Gong Pinmei and the man who was to be his successor as bishop of Shanghai, Father Joseph Fan Zhongliang, were both sent to labour camps. 

Perhaps it was their salvation, as there was a rule that there was to be no violence in these places.

Both survived to minister again.

Despite fears that the current president, Xi Jinping, is angling for another Cultural Revolution, few believe it will happen.

“There are renewed anxieties about political policies restoring—not necessarily the Cultural Revolution, I can’t imagine that happening again—but certainly the sentiments about religion,” Clark says.

“Half a century has passed and there are still some comments, some forms of memorial and even some people with ulterior motives who are pushing for a comeback (of the Cultural Revolution),” one priest says. “But I believe Xi won’t allow this comeback.”

Xi also suffered during that period and most believe that even he would not inflict this upon his people.

But his memory alone may not suffice to affect a peace. The memory must remain with the Chinese people as a whole.

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