State tightens its control over unregistered priests and bishops despite a plea from President George W Bush for greater religious freedom
BY STAFF REPORTER
THE CHINESE government has forbidden "underground" clergy from administering sacraments and has put bishops under house arrest in the run-up to the Olympic Games, it emerged last week.
The crackdown on unregistered bishops and priests has been focused largely in the areas around Beijing.
It coincides with repeated calls from President George W Bush for greater religious freedom in China. The American president travelled to Beijing for the opening ceremony last Friday.
According to one Chinese Catholic who is part of the underground Church most priests working in Beijing had returned to their home towns before the Olympics had begun.
While these priests are out of town, the source told UCA News. they agreed to have their parishioners attend Masses led by registered priests in Beijing, since Bishop Joseph Li Shan of Beijing has papal approval.
He said the government had imposed strict controls on people from other provinces entering Beijing. Officials tightened security checks in residential areas as well as at subway stations and other public transport centres.
The Church in China is split between the "official' Church, part of the state-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association, and the larger "underground" Church which is obedient to Rome rather than Beijing.
In Tianjin municipality and Hebei province, which surround Beijing, Church sources told UCA News that unregistered bishops had been put under house arrest and strict surveillance and are forbidden to contact their priests.
They also said that clergy in those areas without permits from the Catholic Patriotic Association, which functions as a liaison between the registered churches and the State Administration for Religious Affairs, were forbidden from celebrating Mass or administering any sacraments, including the anointing of the sick.
Some priests said they were warned not to leave their home towns, while Catholic villagers said they were told not to welcome unregistered priests to their homes. Anyone violating the orders would be fined heavily, they added.
In Wuqiu village in Hebei. where Bishop Julius Jia Zhiguo of Thengding resides, a small house was built in front of the cathedral for public security officers to guard the unregistered bishop around-the-clock, according to UCA News. Previously, these officers had rented a residential house nearby to monitor the prelate.
Sources reported that officers now take eight-hour shifts and enter the bishop's residence in the cathedral compound every two hours to check on 73-year-old Bishop Jia, who is on medication. Although lay people living outside Wuqiu have been warned not to visit the cathedral, the prelate still insists on celebrating Mass there every day, the sources said.
They explained that underground Catholics were deliberating over whether it was safe to celebrate the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on August 15.
In northeastern China. Bishop Joseph Wei Jingyi of Qiqihar told UCA News that government officials recently phoned him and asked if he would be travelling or holding any religious gatherings during the coming days.
"I know they don't want us to organise any activities during the Olympics," the 50year-old prelate said. He said he told the officials he "won't go anywhere, but will support the Olympics at home, in front of the television".
The opening ceremony of the Olympic Games drew criticism from one Chinese bishop. Coadjutor Bishop John Tong Hon of Hong Kong said he had mixed feelings about attending it because of the government's mistreatment of the Church.
He said: "The five rings of the Olympic logo are known throughout the world. I wish China would attach the same importance to the five interconnected principles of democracy. human rights, the state of law, justice and peace."
Bishop Tong's commentary appeared on the front page of the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano last week. The Olympics began the following day on Friday.
Bishop Tong said he was honoured to attend the ceremonial opening, which some international figures had decided to skip in protest at China's human rights record.
He said: "I've always appreciated the Olympic Games. This year I'm proud of the fact that my country is hosting them. For me it is an honour to receive an invitation from the government to participate in the opening ceremony."
But Bishop Tong said he was embarrassed by the fact that the government did not invite other leading Churchmen. including Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong, with whom he shares pastoral duties. Cardinal Zen has been a frequent and vocal critic of the government.
The Chinese government should have had a "more open mind" and invited all religious
leaders to attend, he said.
Bishop Tong cited a long list of Chinese Church leaders who were either under arrest, detained or harassed by the government and said they were "suffering for our Catholic faith and for fidelity to our Holy Father".
He noted China's recent costly and socially disruptive efforts to clean up air pollution ahead of the Games and said a similar effort should have been made to understand the importance of -greater religious and social freedom-.
The bishop cited as a'posifive sign China's efforts to aid earthquake victims in Sichuan province in May.
But he said another negative sign for religious freedom appeared when the government limited pilgrimages to a prominent Marian shrine on May 24, which was designated by Benedict XVI as a day of prayer for the Church in China.
"The authorities still don't trust Chinese Catholics and feel threatened when we practise our faith," he said.
Bishop Tong. who at 69 still occasionally plays basketball, said he was convinced that sports are an important social and physical activity for everyone.
In the run-up to the Olympic Games last week Benedict XVI said it was important for China to "open itself to the Gospel".
Speaking during his holiday in northern Italy he stressed that China could remain full Chinese while also following Christ.
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