‘For the good of the Chinese people’

Religious freedom is far from being a reality in China. Since 1999, the U.S. State Department has designated China as a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) for “particularly severe violations” of religious liberty.

Catholics in China have, of course, suffered under that religious oppression. Indeed, they have been the focus of religious persecution for many years.

Following the country’s communist revolution in 1949, thousands of Catholic priests and bishops were placed in prison, where many died. In 1957, the Chinese government created a parallel, religious organization, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association loyal to Beijing, not Rome. Over the years, the Patriotic Association has steadily increased its control of all Church property and public Church activities.

In spite of the Chinese Government’s efforts to eliminate the presence of the Catholic Church in the country, an underground Catholic Church coexists with the officially sanctioned Catholic Patriotic Association. Still today, members of the underground Church -- lay people, priests and bishops -- are randomly harassed, detained and imprisoned simply for practicing their faith according with their consciences.

Despite the fact that the Patriotic Association does not officially recognize the authority of the Holy Father, lines of communications between the Vatican, the Patriotic Association and the Chinese government have remained open with the hope that reconciliation may occur. In fact, some recent events have been seen as encouraging signs that the Patriotic Association was open to a continued dialogue toward unity.

For instance, it has been widely reported that most priests and bishops currently members of the Patriotic Association have secretly reconciled with the Holy See.

Also, several bishops in China were ordained with both Vatican and Catholic Patriotic Association approval in 2005. There has even been talk of a possible visit by the Holy Father to China in conjunction with the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

But not all signs are positive. This year the Patriotic Association has again ordained bishops without Vatican consent, prompting a strong reaction from Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun who called the ordinations illicit and “a very serious offense.” In another troubling sign, more priests and bishops of the underground Church were detained in 2006.

Religious freedom, often called “the first freedom” should be guaranteed in China where, even amidst a very hostile environment, religious practice is growing among the people.

With 1.3 billion people, China is the most populous country on earth. According to official Chinese government statistics, 100 million Chinese practice some form of religion. However, the U.S. State Department has said that 200 million is perhaps a more accurate number and noted that the number of believers in the communist country grows substantially each year.

That has certainly been true for the Catholic community in China. Asianews reports that data from the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong shows that there are currently 12 million Catholics in China. In 1949, before Mao Zedong’s rise to power, there were 3 million.

AsiaNews also reports that each year over 150,000 Chinese are baptized as Catholics, most of them adults. Many come from the cultural spheres of the cities, universities and business world.

That thirst for God by the Chinese people is a reminder of the challenge of evangelization that is ahead of us. Pope John Paul II predicted the 21st century would bring “a new springtime of Christian life” in Asia.

Are we witnessing the first steps of that new impulse?

This week, at the request of the Holy Father, Vatican officials met with bishops from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau to discuss the situation of the Church in China.

According to a Jan. 20 Vatican statement, the meeting focused on “the most serious and urgent ecclesial problems.”

The statement called to continue a “respectful and constructive dialogue with the governing authorities, in order to overcome the misunderstandings of the past.”

It also expressed the hope that “a normalization of relations at all levels could be achieved so as to facilitate a peaceful and fruitful life of faith in the Church, and to work together for the good of the Chinese people and for peace in the world.”

Two days later, a Chinese government official has praised the Vatican initiative. This gives hope that we may be at the beginning of a new, more positive, moment in Vatican-Chinese relations.

An important aspect to improve the current situation will be working to heal the wounds among Catholics in China.

A step in that direction seems to be the Vatican’s recognition “that almost all of the bishops and priests in China are in communion with the Supreme Pontiff.”

Reconciliation between the underground Church and the Patriotic Association will not be easy, but it is a necessary step to advance the cause of evangelizing one-fifth of the human race who has never heard the Good News of Christ.