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Catholic prayer groups thrive on campus but keep heads down

HONG KONG (UCAN): Each evening, Maria Dong prays with some 20 classmates in a lecture room at a university in Hebei, a northern Chinese province that is home to nearly a million Catholics.

“There is no explicit rule, warning or reminder at the university that ban us from holding a religious gathering or form any religious group,” Dong explained.

The prayer gatherings continue undisturbed, even though a public reminder about a long-standing ban on religious activity in schools and universities was issued by the Education Department of northwestern Gansu province in May.

That warning was made in response to an online video featuring a kindergarten student reciting the Qur’an. The public warning said the incident “harms the mental health of the youth.”

There have also been broad concerns among some religious-minded Chinese people about a tightening of state control on religions.

Passed in 1995, the Education Law stipulates, “The state shall separate education from religion. Any organisation or individual may not employ religion to obstruct the activities of the state education system.”

But state policy on education and faith groups is known to be inconsistent in practice in different areas.

The military and police have closed what they have deemed illegal madrassas, or Islamic religious schools, in far western Xinjiang. Minors are also banned from entering mosques in the turbulent province.

Meanwhile young Muslims in other areas of the country can enter mosques freely and Christians have been able to infuse education with religion with the tacit approval of authorities in some areas of China.

Yet still, Dong’s group doesn’t make its gatherings public knowledge nor does it hold any activities openly for fear of drawing attention to itself. “This is the unspoken rule in China. You can do so, but not in a high profile way,” Dong explained.

She anticipates that the school administration would oppose their activities if they found out about them. “No penalty, but it would remind us that there is no religious activity on campus,” she added.

Paul, a seminarian in Hebei who works in youth ministry, says that school or college administrations cannot do anything about gatherings involved in quiet activities, even singing hymns.

“Catholic students do not force others to join them. It is those curious passersby who sit down and sing together,” Paul explained.

Teresa Sun, a student at another university in Hebei, also prays with several classmates every evening in a classroom or in the schoolyard.

“Our school administration does not interfere with us. It just does not allow us to stay overnight except on Christmas Eve or at Easter. But even if we did, administrators will not really restrict us. I think their concern is not about religious activity, but our safety,” Sun said.

Just as with Dong’s group, Sun says their leader thinks it is best they keep their religious heads down as well, as they conflict with state policy.

“Religious studies is also an academic subject now. The authorities should allow religions on campus,” Sun insists.

“Our Church is not an evil sect. Religious culture is full of positive energy, which is helpful to eradicate bad practices in society,” she added.

In 2013, Wei Dedong, a professor of Religious Studies at Renmin University in Beijing, wrote an article for the Zhongguo Minzu Bao newspaper where he estimated 3.6 to 3.9 per cent of students in Beijing were Christian. He based his conclusion on three surveys made by two Beijing universities in 2001, 2009 and 2011.

Today, it is not difficult to find an informal Catholic student group with several dozen students in any Hebei university—some have more than 100.

Pius Chen, a Catholic webmaster, said that a similar situation can be found at universities in Beijing and Tianjin municipalities, as well as in the cities of Taiyuan in Shanxi province and Hangzhou in Zhejiang province.

Chen explained that newly admitted Catholic students ask their parish priests for contacts in these Catholic groups or find out about them through chat groups on the Internet before they arrive at the university.

Paul added that existing members of these Catholic groups also do door-knocks in the dormitories to look for new Catholic students at the beginning of each school year.

These student groups are just like other groups commonly found in a parish—they are well organised and have a spiritual director to lead them. They also often turn into a voluntary force involved in charitable work.

Sun and her fellow Catholics go to Mass either at someone’s home or in a church and also take part in voluntary social service projects in nearby villages.

Chen said that they not only help as volunteers at big religious events, but also engage in social service outside the Church.

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