China’s Catholics: ‘Rome may betray us, but I won’t join a Church which is controlled by the Communist Party’
Villagers attend an underground Palm Sunday service in Youtong village, Shijiazhuang
Neil Connor, shijiazhuang
4 APRIL 2016 • www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/04/03/chinas-catholics-rome-may-betray-us-but-i-wont-join-a-church-whi/
In the backyard of a rundown house, a Chinese priest stood before his congregation and conducted an unofficial Catholic Mass.
Father Dong Baolu’s flock were gathered outdoors beside a row of foul-smelling lavatories. They had no choice but to worship in this furtive way, as China does not recognise these so-called “house churches”.
Even so, the congregation stayed for two hours, singing hymns and clasping their hands in prayer.
The service is run by Dong Baolu
China and the Vatican may now be edging towards a thaw that could see Beijing recognising the illegal church, but only on terms that many local Catholics would condemn as a betrayal.
“It’s possible that Rome may betray us,” said Fr Dong, before he said Mass in the city of Shijiazhuang in Hebei province. “If this happens, I will resign. I won’t join a Church which is controlled by the Communist Party.
“We are suffering like Jesus on the cross. We fight for religious freedom and follow the Gospel – but we are not supported by either Rome or China.”
Villagers pray at the service
In the past, agreement between the Vatican and China has always been prevented by the question of who would ordain the clergy.
Beijing insists on controlling any recognised church, mainly by appointing its hierarchy.
Some official Catholic bishops have been appointed by Beijing – only to be excommunicated by the Vatican.
Meanwhile, the authorities have locked up priests who were ordained by the Vatican before the break in relations in the Fifties.
But there are signs that Rome may be willing to compromise. Pope Francis has publicly praised China and voiced the hope that he will visit the country.
Across China, Catholics are choosing to worship in house churches
This warming in relations resulted last summer in the consecration of Joseph Zhang Yinlin as the Roman Catholic Bishop of Anyang. He had been nominated for this role by Beijing – and accepted by the Vatican.
Cardinal Joseph Zen, who formerly led Hong Kong’s Catholics, is concerned about the possibility of a deal where bishops will be formally agreed by both sides, but the Vatican will be able to veto candidates proposed by Beijing.
“It is unthinkable to leave the initial proposal in the hands of an atheist government who cannot possibly judge the suitability of a candidate to be a bishop,” Cardinal Zen wrote.
Catholics fear that any agreement along these lines would compromise the independence of the Church.
Bob Fu, the director of the US-based campaign group ChinaAid, said that any retreat by Rome would “constitute a betrayal of the Chinese Catholic Church, especially those who have suffered even martyrdom”.
Mr Fu added: “It will be like a father’s betrayal of his own children, a saddest day for the independent Catholic Churches in China because the move will legitimise the Communist Party’s persecution, past, present and perhaps future.”
China does not recognise the so-called ‘house churches’
Across China, about six million Catholics have refused to join churches sanctioned by the Communist Party and chosen instead to worship in house churches, where they remain loyal to the Vatican.
In Shijiazhuang, a Catholic bishop who is unrecognised by the authorities, Jia Zhiguo, lives under strict surveillance.
The regime has escalated its suppression of house churches, toppling crosses from places of worship and forcing followers deeper underground.
Meanwhile, another six million people are members of the Catholic Patriotic Association, a Communist Party-controlled body which does not display images of Pope Francis.
The Vatican is pursuing friendly relations with Beijing as it believes it can do more to protect Chinese Catholics if it increases its involvement in the country via a unified Church.
An agreement between the two sides could also see diplomatic relations re-established between the Holy See and Beijing, which would be considered a breakthrough in Rome.
Fr Dong has been detained “many times” by authorities, and the open air Mass that was visited by The Telegraph was moved into his home the following week, amid fear that it would be shut down by authorities.
Standing next to the outside lavatories, with rubble and litter at his feet, a migrant worker who gave his surname as Pei said it was vital for the Vatican to stand up to Beijing’s demands.
“If the independent church is no longer allowed, I will just go home and pray,” he said. “There is only one road for us Catholics.”