BY JAMES POTTS
CHINESE authorities are planning to blow up a revered Marian shrine after judging it to be a place of "illegal religious activity", according to AsiaNews.
The shrine to Our Lady of Cannel in the central Chinese province of Henan draws over 40,000 pilgrims every year.
But the Henan government intends to destroy the statue of Our Lady of Carmel, raze the shrine and ban pilgrimages to the site.
The government has also mobilised 700 troops for military exercises in the area to discourage Catholics from protesting.
Roads leading to the shrine are closed, and cars and pedestrians who approach it are stopped and searched. Almost two months ago the secretary general of Henan ordered that pilgrimages and religious gatherings in the area should be banned and the shrine taken over by the government.
Locals speculate that the site, set in a scenic, mountainous area near the town of Tianjiajing, will be used to build a villa for a local Communist Party member, or perhaps a tourist hotel.
Catholics in the Diocese of Anyang, where the shrine is located, have appealed to the Church.
One Catholic told the Rome-based AsiaNews agency: "We ask all our brothers and sisters in the Lord to pray for us and spread our message to all the faithful of the world." The shrine was built in 1903 by Mgr Stefano Scarsella, a priest from the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, then apostolic vicar to northern Henan.
It was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin for the protection of Christians during the Boxer Rebellion.
Between 1899 and 1901 the peasant uprising killed thousands of foreigners in the country, with Christians especially blamed for foreign control of China.
Priests and nuns from nearby districts took refuge in Tianjiajing. Almost inaccessible through the wooded slopes and steep rock-face to the northern side, it made a good hideout for the refugees.
When eventually the Boxers discovered where the refugees were hiding. Mgr Scarsella promised to build a church at the top of the hill if their prayers were answered and they were saved. It is said that the Boxers, coming in a mob of a few hundred to Tianjiajing, finally had the priests and nuns in their sights as they rounded a bend near the top of the mountain.
But suddenly shapes in white gowns appeared in the air and the mob fled.
The church has only recently been rebuilt, but the statue of Mary — which the Henan authorities reportedly plan to destroy — is over 100 years old.
The Tianjiajing parish has two churches, dedicated to St Joseph and to Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Almost the whole town was converted by missionaries in the 19th century, and since then has become the centre of Catholicism in Henan, producing scores of priests and religious.
St Joseph Church was burnt down by the Japanese army in May 1942 during the Sino-Japanese War, and has also been rebuilt recently.
The Department for Religious Affairs has kept strict surveillance on all priests, forcing them to hold "discussions—in which they try to convince them not to go ahead with the pilgrimage.
Meanwhile, nuns in more than 600 female monasteries in the country are praying for a positive reception of Pope Benedict XVI's long-awaited letter to Chinese Catholics.
In a letter sent to 610 enclosed female monasteries, Cardinal Ivan Dias, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, said that the Pope wrote the letter "to express his paternal closeness and offer them some orientation about the life of the Church and the work of evangelisation in that huge country". He discussed the persecution of the underground Church in China.
It emerged last month that a blind pro-life activist in China was severely beaten in prison.
Chen Guangcheng 35, who was sentenced last four years incarceration for damaging property and disrupting traffic, claims he has been wrongfully convicted. He has led resistance to state-enforced abortions and sterilisations in Linyi City, in the Shandong Province, eastern China.
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