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Ordeal of Mass at Christmas

HONG KONG (UCAN): For both the official and unofficial Church communities in China, Christmas Eve Masses proved to be an ordeal.

In Beijing, it often meant competing for admission and queuing for mandatory security checks for hours at the four downtown churches, popularly known as the North, South, East and West Churches.

With the North Church closed for renovation, people flocked to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception leading to over 5,000 people crushing around for midnight Mass.

Joseph Zhang said, “We spent three hours queuing up for a security check for the midnight Mass that lasted two hours.”

Teresa Wang Delan added, “There were just too many security officers. You could see one almost every three metres. You could not bring in water bottles, handbags or lighters.”

The security measures at the East and West Churches were not any more relaxed. People were lined up for over 100 metres waiting to be searched.

Mary Li, from Xingtai in northern Hebei, said Mass at the West Church was delayed for 30 minutes due to security checks.

Li added that there are no such security measures in her hometown. “We all know each other in our own parish. But it is understandable as there are all sorts of people in the capital,” she noted.

Li, who is in her 20s, was experiencing her first Christmas in Beijing.

Security is normal during big Church events, especially since a car was deliberately crashed in Tiananmen Square in 2013, which many call the first terrorist attack in Beijing’s recent history.

Security checks are also stricter at the South Church because of its international congregation, which includes diplomats and other foreign dignitaries.

Since Christmas is not a holiday in China, getting to Mass and home again quickly is important so as to be ready for work the next day.

Despite the progressive government crackdown on religion in recent years, Beijing shows many visible signs of the Christmas season.

Shopping malls and hotels are decorated with huge Christmas trees and Santa Clauses distribute small promotional gifts and leaflets.

“Everyone knows Christmas,” John Wang explained, “but they think it is the birthday of Santa Claus.”

Nevertheless, at the midnight Mass in the cathedral, at least 300 people who are not Catholic lined up to receive a blessing.

The West Church also featured a booth to distribute copies of the New Testament to curious onlookers and invite them to join the parish social media account.

“As many young people who do not know the meaning of Christmas come for Mass, it is an easier time to make contacts than Easter,” Paul Li said.

While big cities like Beijing and Shanghai are showcases of religious freedom in China, the unofficial communities across China face a different ordeal.

In Hebei, Henan and Inner Mongolia, individual communities were banned from celebrating Mass on Christmas Eve.

Mass at Wujia village in Henan was disbanded and government officials escorted Father Ma Mumin from Inner Mongolia back to his hometown in Hebei two days before Christmas.

In Baoding, police blocked people at major intersections that lead to unofficial community gathering venues.

In some places, government officials stayed at the homes of lay leaders so that they could not mobilise people for Mass.

In one community, hundreds of people had to wait until midnight for Mass, while another was less lucky with people only being able to pray at home.

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