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China's Catholicism with a twist twisting free?

BEIJING -- Clad in the simple, somber blues and grays of the stereotypical Chinese peasant, a scrubbed but tousled old gatekeeper greets two visitors at the door of Xishiku Catholic Church in near-north-west Beijing.

About 3,000 people are about to receive communion. The gatekeeper said proudly that twice that number had attended Easter services the Sunday before.

"These people really believe," observes a non-Catholic Beijinger watching the communicants file devoutly down the aisles. "In the West, this is so common, so easy, but these people have gone through a lot just to be here together," he said.

Some Chinese Catholics endured lengthy imprisonments, even torture and death, according to some reports, to practice their faith in this technically atheistic society. But many observers say a new, more open era has finally begun for all Christians in China, ushering in a freedom not known since before the Communist Party takeover in 1949.

Official reports put membership in the government-sanctioned "patriotic" Catholic church at 4 million, with at least 50,000 baptisms annually, many of them adults, according to Bishop Zhong Huaide, head of the bishops' conference in the approved church.

Zhong, 68, said members of the official church not only "like Catholics around the world, pray daily for the pope," they also recognize the pope as the head of the church, indicating a loosening of religious constraints in the ongoing struggle between the Vatican and the Communist Party.

Meanwhile, the underground church, tenacious Catholics who have been clandestinely practicing their faith for decades, is still growing fast and has an estimated membership of 10 million, more than twice that of the official church, but still a drop in China's 1.2 billion population bucket.

Ossified attitudes?

While refusing to recognize the official Chinese church, the Vatican gives diplomatic recognition to the government of Taiwan, instead of the People's Republic of China. These are both sore points for many mainland Chinese.

"Your pope is a bad guy," Zhong said, paraphrasing certain mainland scholars. "Most countries in the world recognize the PRC, but the pope won't. (He) has an ossified mind."

Although Zhong confirms the existence of the underground movement, he emphasized the need for Catholics in China to become involved in the official church if they care about the future development of the church in this country.

"Chinese Catholics have to go along with the rules of the Chinese government," Zhong said during an interview at his church on the south side of Beijing, a huge crucifix dangling from his neck. "If they disregard the reality ... and go along with the Vatican, this in turn will hurt the Catholic church."

Official recognition aside, China's mandatory family planning policies, instituted several years ago to combat a raging overpopulation problem, create a mammoth hurdle between Roman Catholic doctrine and the Chinese state.

Liu Bianian, vice president of the "patriotic" church, was irritated with the Vatican's position. Since Chinese people are practicing family planning "not in their own selfish interests, but because they are citizens," he argued, "it is not for the Catholic church to say this is a sin."

The China caveat

This logic -- that China is so intrinsically different that any international system must adapt to the country's unique circumstances -- is familiar, and not only in church affairs. A common phrase here describes the new economic policies as "socialism with Chinese characteristics," a caveat frequently applied to almost any enterprise.


Lou Chinan, a state church official, used it to describe the church's architectural goals in its current rebuilding program. A traditional Chinese look is being combined with the Western architecture of existing buildings to "build up a kind of Catholicism with typical Chinese characteristics," he said.

The rebuilding began in 1985, when many of China's churches were reopening and needed repair from the Cultural Revolution's decade of destruction. It has severely strained the church's financial resources, which have been almost entirely local and another sore point with the government, in a socialist society where personal wealth must go to the state for redistribution.

With recent economic reforms, however, money is flowing more freely, much of it from overseas, and both the official church and the underground church are starting to take advantage of it.

Yet, finances remain a source of friction, at least for some underground churches in the more repressed provincial areas. A 1989 report said scores of villagers in Hebei province were injured trying to defend a church they were building against thousands of police. Official ire over the foreign money funding the construction reportedly sparked the police raid.

According to Zhong, the official church is openly seeking donations from Catholics overseas.

Meanwhile, other reports of religious persecution continue to filter out. The Puebla Institute, a right-wing human rights watchdog, recently reported the death of an elderly underground church bishop, Liu Difen, from what the institute believes was torture administered during detention. According to the institute, Liu was the fourth Catholic bishop in recent years to die after maltreatment in detention.

Because the Chinese political system is still closed, it is hard to know if religious persecution is diminishing, increasing or remaining steady. Another Catholic human rights organization in the United States estimates that China continues to imprison some 200 priests, despite some recent well-publicized releases.

Some areas, such as the southeastern coastal province of Zhejiang, have always been more tolerant of religious practices. Others, including the province surrounding the capital, where the latest death reportedly occurred, are considered far more repressive.

However, a Western diplomat said last spring that the number of Catholic detainees is small and there are fewer cases than before.

When asked about state security crack-downs on underground Catholics, Zhong admitted some incidents have occurred, without providing any details, but he intimated they were rare.

Lions at the gate

Meanwhile, devotions at Beijing's official Xishiku Church continue to draw more members and much curiosity. On that Sunday after Easter, Japanese tourists took turns posing for snapshots in front of the church's medieval edifice, now improbably flanked by a matched set of Qing dynasty pavilions. Snarling, highly stylized marble lions, practically ubiquitous at Beijing's older gateways, guard Xishiku's entrance.

This neo-Gothic church, modeled after Notre Dame in Paris, was one of the first to get a face-lift and stands as a good example of the blending of East and West.

After Mass, parishioners mingle much as church members do across the world. Small groups form in the courtyard, beneath the benign gaze of a Madonna set atop a massive Chinese rockery above a reflecting pool. They discussed their faith with a reporter, but would not allow their names to be used because their printed words might cause ripples, even though there seemed to be little fear of political repercussions.

One bright, aggressive 20-year-old clad in denims, a textile mill worker and part-time English student at the capital's Foreign Studies University, said he was a third-generation Catholic from a rural village near Hanan, on the southernmost tip of Hebei province. He deflected inquiries about the underground church, but said his home church was of the official variety.

Prayers for the pope were said there, he added, just as they were at Xishiku. The main difference here, he said, was that Mass was celebrated in Latin rather than Chinese.

"It's the older people mostly," he said in English. "There is not so much praying for the pope among younger Catholics. It's a matter of personal choice, though. We are free to pray as we wish."

A retired construction worker, 65, now a Xishiku groundskeeper, said he was a mission school student and would-be seminarian until his studies were interrupted by the war with Japan. Many of his fellow students went overseas at the time and a few of them returned as priests, but he stayed behind and never returned to school full time. A fourth-generation Catholic, he said the liturgy and other sacraments were "exactly the same as before (1949)."

"We must follow government policies. There are generally no problems as long as nothing goes against the government," he said, explaining that the church today "must fit into the special situation in China on divorce, abortion and the like. Those are not sin now, here."

But he said Catholics in the official church are "more free than in years past. And they're getting more free every day." Besides, he said, the government is helping out. "They spent a million yuan (about $250,000 at the time) restoring the church so it could reopen in 1985," he said.

"Over there," he said, pointing to an austere structure up against the courtyard wall, "is a factory put up at the time of the trouble for us (the Cultural Revolution). It's on church ground. So are another factory and a school over on that side," he pointed out. "Maybe we'll get those back someday and can make money with them." Raising money for the church is a problem, he said.

Then one of the more prosperous-looking parishioners came by. Dressed smartly in a Beijing-modern skirt and checked jacket, she said she works with FESCO, one of China's more successful new quasiprivate companies providing services to foreign enterprises.

In her early 30s, she said she not only practices her faith here, but loves it and was "happy to be a Catholic even before the churches began reopening when (she) was about 18. Catholic people are nicer to each other and to everyone, kinder to their family members," she said.

An hour after Mass, two elderly women in the severely tailored gray suits of Mao's era were standing in leaf-mottled sun-light, nodding together. Catholicism in their families goes back many generations, they said. The shorter of the two, both tiny by any ethnic standard, looked toward the church's massive doors.

"I'd come here every day if my health was better," she said. "It's so nice to have churches again, where we can all come together to worship and ... be together as Catholics."
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Catholic Reporter
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Henderson, Leslie
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Jul 2, 1993
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