The Church's China Hurdle

Religious Liberty Remains Elusive

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By Father John Flynn

HONG KONG, NOV. 12, 2006 (Zenit.org).- As speculation continues over the future of relations between the Vatican and China, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun recently offered to step up his activity in this area. In January the archbishop of Hong Kong reaches 75 years of age, when he must offer his resignation to the Pope. If this is accepted, then he would like to dedicate more time to the Church in mainland China, he told the South China Morning Post on Sept. 22.

Cardinal Zen said that he had spoken of this desire with Benedict XVI. According to a Sept. 28 report in the Morning Post, the Pope promised to consider the matter.

Earlier this year tensions between the Chinese government and the Vatican grew, after the state-controlled "patriotic" Catholic Church went ahead with ordinations of bishops. Father Ma Yingling was ordained as bishop of Kunming at a ceremony in the southwestern Yunnan province, reported the BBC on the day of the ceremony, April 30.

Cardinal Zen had requested Chinese authorities, on behalf of the Vatican, to delay the ceremony, according to the BBC. China's foreign ministry said that the Vatican's objections to the new bishops were "groundless," the South China Morning Post reported May 1. The foreign ministry also reportedly urged the Vatican to accept Beijing's authority to name bishops.

A second ordination quickly followed, that of Father Liu Xinhong, from the central province of Anhui. According to a report published the day of the ceremony, May 3, in the South China Morning Post, the Vatican sent a "clear message" ahead of time that the candidate did not have papal approval.

Benedict XVI received the news of the ordinations with "profound displeasure," according to a statement issued by then Vatican spokesman Joaquín Navarro Valls. He added: "An act so relevant for the life of the Church, such as an episcopal ordination, has been carried out" -- twice in the span of three days -- "without respecting the requirements of communion with the Pope."

Excommunicated

The Code of Canon Law of the Church stipulates that in such cases both the bishops who ordain and the ordained bishop are automatically excommunicated.

But this did not stop Beijing. A third bishop, also without approval from Rome, celebrated a Mass to mark his installment just a few days later. Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu, who was ordained in 2000 without papal approval, celebrated Mass in a church in the southern city of Ningde to mark his government appointment as head of the Mindong Diocese, the Associated Press reported May 14. He had been named bishop of the diocese a year ago, but at the time the event was not made public.

The Mindong Diocese, in the southern province of Fujian, has more than 60,000 Catholics, but only 10,000 worship in state-authorized churches, according to the Associated Press. The data came from Catholic Church sources in Hong Kong. The larger community of Catholics who do not accept the government's control already have a bishop, Huang Shoucheng, who was approved by the Vatican.

Persecution continues

In addition to their hard line with Rome, Chinese authorities continue to persecute those who do not submit to government rules on religious belief. Cardinal Zen outlined some of the problems faced, in an Oct. 2 speech in London organized by the group Aid to the Church in Need.

According to the London-based service Christian Today, the cardinal explained that the government-approved churches in China are not overseen by the bishops, but are really run by selected lay people. The latter are "instruments of the government" within the congregations, the cardinal said.

Nevertheless, Cardinal Zen spoke positively of a recent invitation from the Chinese Church for a delegation to come from the Holy See -- the first such invitation in years. "We have to trust Divine Providence," he said. "So even after half a century we accept whatever happens because surely it is by Divine Providence."

Among the government's targets are the "house churches" that spring up in many places. These are showing increased boldness, the Washington Post reported Oct. 1.

The house churches don't accept the restrictions imposed by the government-approved Protestant church, known as the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. Government demolitions of the buildings used to hold the illegal church ceremonies have drawn local protests in the southern province of Zhejiang.

A detailed look at the situation in that country came in a report published Sept. 20 by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. The U.S. Congress set up the commission in October 2000 with a mandate to monitor human rights and the development of the rule of law in China. The commission submits an annual report to the president and Congress.

The latest report noted that religious groups that choose not to register with the government, or those that the government refuses to register, "operate outside the zone of protected religious activity and risk harassment, detention, imprisonment, and other abuses." And even those groups that are registered risk repression if they engage in religious activities that authorities deem a threat to the authority or legitimacy of the Communist Party.

No improvement

Two years ago the government introduced new rules on religious activity. The 2004 Regulation on Religious Affairs, as it is called, has not led to greater freedom of faith for Chinese citizens, according to the U.S. commission. This is in spite of Chinese government claims that the new rules represented a "paradigm shift" by limiting state control over religion.

In 2005, for example, authorities detained 21 Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns as part of government attempts to control religious activity in the region. The report said that 50 Tibetan monks and nuns are currently imprisoned.

The commission stated that government repression of unapproved Catholic priests increased in the past year. Citing reports from nongovernmental organizations, the U.S. report said that officials in Hebei and Zhejiang provinces detained a total of 38 unregistered clerics in the last year, compared with 11 the previous year.

Catholic bishops who lead large unregistered communities face the most severe punishment. Bishop Jia Zhiguo, of the Zhengding Diocese in Hebei province, has spent most of the past year in detention. He has been detained at least eight times since 2004.

The U.S. report even noted increased government harassment of members of the official "patriotic" Catholic Church. On three occasions in November and December 2005, officials or unidentified assailants beat Catholic nuns or priests, officially registered by the government, after they demanded the return of church property.

The government also strictly controls the practice of Islam. The state-controlled Islamic Association of China aligns Muslims' practice to Communist Party goals by measures that include directing the training and confirmation of religious leaders, and controlling the content of sermons and publications.

The U.S. commission also touched on the topic of Protestant house churches. The commission cited data from one nongovernmental organization that put at nearly 2,000 the number of believers who were detained in the period May 2005-May 2006. China, for now, seems much more open to economic freedom than to the religious variety.