China and Vatican Make No Secret of Thaw

Times Staff Writer

The priest opens a small black bag, carefully removing several sacramental garments, then glances at the 17 faces around the room. The house is several miles from the nearest town, down a long winding dirt road and tucked into a traditional Chinese courtyard.

It’s almost midnight on a recent Sunday as a few stragglers emerge from the dark, duck through a curtain made of pieces of old soda cans and enter a family’s bedroom, for now a makeshift church.

This secret Roman Catholic service is illegal in a country where the Communist Party demands control of all religious organizations. After the sermon, the priest, who asked not to be identified because of the risk of prosecution, reminds the faithful to be careful: “When you leave, don’t say anything to outsiders,” he says. “We all came to attend a friend’s party. I hope you understand, and save us all from trouble.”


He should know. He was imprisoned for two months in the 1990s for practicing his faith and says he was tortured.

Although freedom of religion is enshrined in China’s Constitution, in practice, churches are under the watchful eye of a series of official “patriotic” religious organizations that have final authority over the naming of bishops, priests and other leaders. Many who bridle at Beijing’s often-clumsy oversight prefer to worship underground despite the risk of arrest.

The so-called patriotic Catholics number 4 million, according to government figures. Underground church members are estimated at two to three times that number.

In recent months, relations between the Vatican and Beijing have thawed, with some seeing the death of Pope John Paul II as a catalyst. Rome, with its worldwide flock of 1 billion, and the Chinese Communist Party, overseeing a nation of 1.3 billion, have been doing an uneasy dance driven by self-interest.

For Beijing, establishing formal ties with the Vatican could help soften its poor reputation on human rights and religious freedom. It would also be a diplomatic coup, since the Vatican would almost certainly have to sever formal ties with the Taiwanese government, Beijing’s adversary.

To the Vatican, China represents an extremely attractive frontier, where one-fifth of the world’s people live in a society increasingly hungry for spirituality. Catholics in China have endured great hardship in the service of their faith for decades, including the imprisonment of many priests.

In talks in Rome and Beijing, the two sides have outlined a range of possible compromises to normalize relations that seem to overcome the main sticking points, said Mario Marazziti, spokesman for the Rome-based humanitarian group Community of St. Egidio.

The talks suffered a setback when Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian attended John Paul’s funeral, but Marazziti said he believed it was only temporary.

The main elements of a compromise are now in focus, religious leaders and analysts say. The Vatican would probably end its official recognition of Taiwan and Beijing would allow Rome greater say in church affairs.

Cuba and Vietnam, also ruled by communist governments, may provide a model, experts say. For instance, instead of naming a bishop, Rome could offer three candidates, letting Beijing choose.

Church officials said many of Taiwan’s 300,000 Catholics might feel betrayed by any downgrading of relations between Taipei and Rome. But Msgr. Ambrose Madtha, the Vatican’s charge d'affaires in Taiwan, said the possibility had been floating for years, and many are used to the idea.

The outspoken bishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Zen, said Rome wants better relations more than Beijing, which has rebuffed Vatican overtures in recent years. Rome even dispatched archbishops to North Korea on humanitarian missions, another country with which it has no official ties, in part because the priests would transit through Beijing.

Once in China’s capital, Zen said, the Catholic envoys called religious affairs officials, who sometimes agreed to meet them. “But if they said yes, they would just drink tea and repeat the same things, because the order is from the top,” he said.

China would need to change its overall approach for a deal to be struck, Zen said. Beijing recognizes Rome’s spiritual authority but not its political authority. The patriotic associations, for example, exert overt control over the Catholic Church in some places, requiring that a Communist Party official attend every major organizational meeting.

A rapprochement flies in the face of Beijing’s general tightening of control over the media, religious groups, Internet writers, students and other potential critics since President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao came to power in 2002-03.

Skeptics point out that Beijing will probably face calls from other religions to match concessions to Catholics. And even Zen admits that the giant bureaucracy charged with controlling religion would fight any change that might jeopardize its job.

While the Catholic Church in China is growing at a moderate pace, various Protestant churches are expanding rapidly and now boast 15 million government-approved members and perhaps twice as many unofficial “house church” believers. Protestants have also faced prosecution for practicing outside government-approved churches.

In a recent example, police in northeastern Jilin province raided 100 house churches in late May and detained 600 people, many of whom are still in custody, the U.S.-based China Aid Assn. said.

And China’s majority Taoist, Buddhist and Muslim religions were hit hard during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when they were tarred as vestiges of old China designed by former rulers to subject the population. Temples were destroyed, monasteries disbanded and mosques ransacked, their religious leaders sometimes killed or sent to rural areas to work.

After Mao Tse-tung died, China slowly loosened up on worship. All religious groups remain under its watchful eye, however, overseen by state bureaucracies.

In practice, most worshipers have coexisted with the government because, unlike in Christianity, they lack a strong independent hierarchy and do not tend to recognize the authority of a foreign spiritual leader. And some movements, like Confucianism, are more a philosophy than an organized religion.

The exception tends to be sects aligned with regional independence movements, as with Buddhists in Tibet or Muslims in Xinjiang in the far west, who continue to suffer severe government crackdowns.

Driving the increase in faith across the Chinese landscape is what some experts refer to as a spiritual vacuum. With China rapidly becoming capitalist in all but name, growing numbers of people seek some sort of moral compass.

Despite excesses suffered during the Cultural Revolution and the 1950s Great Leap Forward, many older Chinese remain nostalgic for the Mao era, when communism gave people something to believe in under the promise of equality and mutual benefit.

“People in the West may not regard communism as a type of faith, but it is in the Chinese sense,” said Fenggang Yang, a sociologist at Purdue University, who is training Chinese scholars to better assess the effect of religion on society. “China’s communism doesn’t hold people anymore. They’re looking for something more.”

Analysts say the Communist Party’s close oversight is driven by a fear of any group that might form a base of political opposition.

“The screw is being turned,” said Richard Madsen, author of the book “China’s Catholics.” “Religion is a vexing problem for authoritative regimes like China.”

At the same time, local authorities enjoy significant autonomy in interpreting policies as they see fit. In the words of a centuries-old Chinese expression, “The rule of the emperor stops at the village gate.”

In some provinces, police crack down hard on underground religion, whereas in other areas, people worship openly.

In the northern province of Hebei, for example, 33 members of seven dioceses have been arrested and imprisoned in recent months, said Joseph Kung of the Cardinal Kung Foundation, a human rights group based in Stamford, Conn.

Elsewhere, in the last two decades there has been growing tolerance. Church officials say more than 90% of bishops are secretly approved by Rome.

Twice a year, in May and September, the worlds of the patriotic and underground Catholic churches converge at Cross Mountain in Shaanxi province as thousands of faithful climb the mountain, carrying crucifixes and kneeling in prayer on the way up. At the top, priests hear confessions in the open air as a team of priests says mass. And in a Chinese touch, firecrackers are set off at the moment when the bread and wine are blessed, a traditional means of dispelling evil spirits.

The crowd is dotted with obvious undercover police in black shirts, expensive slacks and sunglasses, who mostly just observe the proceedings.

The festival is inspired by Liu Jialu, a priest who, while in Italy around 1717, asked the pope if he would designate a sacred place in China.

Li Duan, 89, a bishop in Fengxiang village in Shaanxi province, has spent much of his life navigating the divide between the underground and official churches.

“In my 25 years as a bishop, I’ve never participated in the patriotic association,” he said from behind a desk stacked high with papers and books as well as a cactus, lawn clippers and a bottle of chili sauce. “The Communist Party may not be happy, but I don’t care.”

Jailed in 1959, Li was named a bishop by Rome soon after he was released in 1980. He emerged to find more than 30 of the county’s churches destroyed. Since then, he said, he’s reached an accommodation with authorities, doing everything he can to work with them, except on core issues of dogma.

When they ask him to reduce the size of a gathering, he said, he complies. When they ask him not to go to Cross Mountain, he doesn’t. And when they ask him to attend a seminar on patriotic Catholicism, he goes.

“That way the government can save face,” he said. “Politics is politics and religion is religion. Other than faith, I can be flexible.”

He’s also seen his church rebuilt. He stands proudly in front, a Technicolor flourish of pinks, yellows, purples, reds and blues topped by metal angels and an array of fruit, flowers, birds, angels and wheat stalks. “We’re underground, but we’re above ground,” Li said.

The Communist Party, which banned the Catholic Church in 1951 shortly after taking over the country, advocates atheism. In 1986 Deng Xiao Ping reportedly urged cadres to be vigilant against the sort of sweeping democratic reforms that Poland witnessed at the hands of a Catholic labor union coalition.

But Hong Kong’s Bishop Zen says Beijing has nothing to fear. Catholics in Poland make up more than 90% of the population and resentment toward the Communist Party, seen as an extension of Moscow, ran deep. Catholics in China represent a tiny minority and the party is home-grown, enjoying broad-based support.

“The comparison is not appropriate,” he said.

Another area where the state and the church’s aims differ is on birth control and abortion. China instituted a one-child policy in 1979 to curb population growth. In general, heavy-handed enforcement has given way to financial incentives in most parts of the country, but coercive methods can still be found in some rural areas.

Underground church officials say they take a stand on principle, but face limits on what they can do.

“Of course we are against abortion and birth control,” said Bishop Li. “If government officials consult with us, we’ll disagree. But if they compel us, we don’t have any choice.”

During her trip to Beijing in March, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a point of attending a service at Gangwashi Protestant church, a well-preserved 1920s building that saw its pastor arrested in 1994 for honoring Tiananmen victims, but which is now state-approved.

Gangwashi’s smart furnishings contrast with those of the secretly held service in the house church back in Tianshui, in Gansu province. Here, the altar is an old wooden desk, its fake veneer peeling off. The chalice is an egg cup, the altar cloth a green towel, and the organ a cheap plastic keyboard atop a foot-powered sewing machine. Under a calendar with an image of Christ, homemade wafers and wine sit atop a side table that doubles as the family toothbrush holder, splayed bristles peaking from a plastic cup decorated with cartoon characters.

As the priest wraps up the Mass, the hard life of his parishioners evident in their dirty hands, bent backs and etched faces, he expresses hope that Beijing and Rome will improve relations.

“If we became legal, we wouldn’t have to sneak around like this,” he said. “It’s only God’s strength that keeps me going.”