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Mother Teresa’s China rebuff

BEIJING (AsiaNews): Mother Teresa, together with eight of her sisters arrived in Hong Kong on 18 March 1994 with an ongoing ticket for an 8.00am direct flight to Haikou, the capital of Hainan province in southern China, for the following morning.

Prior to her arrived, some of her sisters had already visited the province on several occasions in preparation for her arrival.

Father John Worthley, who at the time was teaching at Seton Hall University in the United States of America, had made two or three academic tours of the island province speaking on public administration and business management at the Hainan University and the Hainan Foreign Trade School.

He had mentioned Mother Teresa’s desire to have a presence in China and he says he believes that he received a highly positive response from the Provincial Association of the Hainan Disabled, which carried the approval of the provincial Department of Civil Affairs.

Mother Teresa planned to send some of her sisters to Hainan to work among children with various disabilities and orphans at the Haikou Welfare Centre, a government institution in the capital, which at the time housed about 150 children.

It was to have been the first step in her outreach on the mainland. Father Bill Petrie and his film producer sister, Jan Petrie, had made a few visits each to discuss details with the centre and with the Disabled Association.

The Provincial Association and the Department of Civil Affairs had also discussed the project with the National Association of Disabled People, which at the time was led by Deng Pufang, who was himself confined to a wheelchair and responsible for setting up an association for people with disabilities, as well as being the son of then-paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping.

The paramount leader had given his consent to the sisters’ arrival, but did express some concern about a possible link between Mother Teresa and the Vatican.

Mother Teresa had responded with a letter to officials in Hainan stressing that the Missionaries of Charity never compare cultures or nations and never criticise any government.

She also clarified that the congregation was a charitable non-government organisation devoted to assisting the poor around the world regardless of country or political persuasion.

With approval from Beijing, the local government in Hainan sent an invitation to Mother Teresa to come to Haikou and she and the eight sisters were in Hong Kong on their way.

But on the eve of the trip, an urgent message was received from Beijing by Father Worthley saying, “No mission or Mother Teresa’s visit is allowed. Otherwise, all the consequences will fall on you.”

Father Worthley recalls, “The text did not specify any reason for this change, but I believe it to be connected with the possible relationship with the Vatican.”

He says that the local officials in Hainan were embarrassed and fearful, as they did not know how to deal with this sudden rebuff of their guests.

They had their guests at the door and they believed that they had come with good intentions, but now the wind blowing from Beijing had shifted and the door had been blown shut.

Father Worthley had played a pivotal role in the negotiations from the outset as a facilitator and coordinator. He was also the only one involved from the Hainan side who did not have an official government position, so could be easily removed.

He says that So Hesen, who at that time was the president of the Association of Disabled, entrusted him with the task of solving the problem.

Father Worthley had accompanied Mother Teresa during three visits to China between 1986 and 1993, but he recalls on that fateful day that the door was closed to her that he still had a strong hope of seeing her establish a mission in China, so he decided to call the office of Deng Pufang to request a review of the decision.

“I tried to clarify the position of the missionaries, reminding him of the letter from Mother Teresa guaranteeing there would be no political involvement,” he says.

He adds that after speaking with his boss, Deng’s secretary, Sun Junyi, replied, “Absolutely not.”

Deflated, he said that he called Mother Teresa in Hong Kong and with great shame informed her everything was off.

“But it was Mother Teresa who comforted me with her calm and gentle voice,” he says, she only seemed to be worried about the possibility of punishment the local officials in Hainan may face.

“I told her that I would take all responsibility, since I was not a government official and she thanked me,” he says.

The media in Hong Kong wrote condemnatory stories about the inconsistency of the government in Beijing and described the whole affair as a real scandal.

Somewhat crestfallen, Mother Teresa left with her entourage for Kolkata. She had come so close, yet remained so far away, leaving her great desire to establish a mission in China behind her in Hong Kong, where it remains to this very day.

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