The situation of Catholics in China is worsening

The situation of Catholics in China is worsening

Lina Chan

Lina Chan, Diocesan Secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission in Hong Kong, gave this report to an international meeting on Peace and Reconciliation in Asia, in Bangkok, capital of Thailand.

The Justice and Peace Commission of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese is concerned about the situation of the Catholic Church in mainland China.

The Chinese authorities have imposed political and religious policies that have been against the principles and practices of the Catholic faith, and that they have gravely violated human rights.

This has caused the Catholics in China to split into so-called “Official Church” and “Underground Church” communities. This brings pain and suffering within the Church.

Both official and underground church communities, to a certain degree, have suffered from violations of human rights committed by the authorities. The faithful in China have not only their religious freedom violated, but also their personal liberty and freedom of association. Here are some cases to illustrate their situations.

(I)

Each religion has its own characteristics, religious hierarchy, teachings and principles of the faith. To manifest one’s religion or belief in practicing these characteristics, is a form of religious freedom and both Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) recognises this right.

One characteristic of the Catholic Church is the communion and unity of the Church. The Catholic Church in China is part of the universal Church and the appointment of Catholic bishops rests with the Pope. As Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI who ended his office on 28 February 2013 has written in his Letter to the Catholics in mainland China in 2007, “Communion and unity – let me repeat (cf. section 5 above) – are essential and integral elements of the Catholic Church: therefore the proposal for a Church that is ‘independent’ of the Holy See, in the religious sphere, is incompatible with Catholic doctrine.”

“The Pope, when he issues the apostolic mandate for the ordination of a Bishop, exercises his supreme spiritual authority: this authority and this intervention remain within the strictly religious sphere. It is not, therefore, a question of a political authority, unduly asserting itself in the internal affairs of a State and offending against its sovereignty. The appointment of Bishops for a particular religious community is understood, in international documents, as a constitutive element of the full exercise of the right to religious freedom.”

Currently, one of the principles of the Chinese government’s religious policy is the principle of "independence and autonomy, self-management of the Church". The Chinese government claims it would help safeguard the autonomy of Chinese Church. Yet, in reality, it violates the faithful’s freedom of conscience and the essential properties of the Catholic Church, severely violating Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Chinese government uses it to cover-up its violations of religious rights. Using the principle, the Chinese government actively promoted the establishment of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the National Assembly of Catholic Representatives, ordaining Bishops without the indispensable Papal mandate.

The Patriotic Association, controlled by the Chinese government, manipulates church issues, such as carrying out illicit episcopal ordination or interrupting personnel appointments of the Church. The National Assembly is the current highest governing body of the Chinese Catholic Church, which is above the bishops’ council. In fact, it is merely a political assembly, attended mainly by government officials, controlled and led by the Patriotic Association and the Chinese authorities, while Bishops and priests cannot freely discuss Church issues. Such a mechanism does not exist in the universal Church. The Code of Canon Law of the Catholic Church states that a bishop is the highest decision-maker of the diocese, being responsible for discipline, decision-making and leadership, and the bishops’ conference is the highest authority in the local Church. Yet, the mechanism that is specific to China, together with the Patriotic Association, “rule” the Bishops and place themselves above the Bishops. They violate the Church’s autonomy and normal operation.

Some of the faithful are very frustrated by these two organizations. They refused to attend the Eighth National Assembly of Catholic Representatives in December 2010 and the illicit ordinations (including those took place in November 2010, June and July 2011 and July 2012) orchestrated by the Chinese authorities and the Patriotic Association. However, Catholics are often treated with carrots and sticks, kidnapped, placed under house arrest; some clergymen have been forced to attend by the officials. These acts have seriously violated their freedom of religion and conscience.

For example, on the eve of the Eighth National Assembly in December 2010, dozens of government officials and their vehicles surrounded the residence of Bishop Feng Xinmao of Hengshui (Jing County) Diocese in Hebei Province. Government officials forcibly escorted Bishop Feng to attend the assembly in Beijing. Bishop Li Liangui of Cangzhou (Xianxian) Diocese, also in Hebei Province, has disappeared shortly before the Eighth Assembly, the officials searched for him intensively, by surrounding his residence with police vehicles. Some priests were taken away for interrogations pressing to know the whereabouts of Bishop Li, who insisted not to attend the Eighth Assembly. Later, he was found and was then taken to a “study session” in a guesthouse. Some participants of the National Assembly of Catholic Representatives pointed out that the representatives were accompanied by government officials from the united front work department and religion affairs department. Some officials also told them privately, that they should keep their mouths shut and just show up to accomplish their duties.

Between November 2010 and July 2012, the Patriotic Association and the Chinese government, without the indispensable Papal mandate, have held four illicit ordinations in Chengde of Hebei Province, Leshan Diocese of Sichuan Province, Shantou Diocese of Guangdong Province and Harbin Apostolic Administration of Heilongjiang Province. In Shantou Diocese, one priest said that he was taken by nine security officers to the election venue and saw that there were more plainclothes “helpers” than the voters, with the whole election under surveillance. He said the whole process broke his heart, as it was not conducted according to the Church’s principle, but under heavy-handed oppression. At the illicit episcopal ordinations, where Bishops from other dioceses were forced to attend, violating their principles of faith and conscience. Some clergy were detained during the ordinations and only released after the ceremony.

Religious communities have the right to govern themselves according to their own norms and religious principles. Religious communities also have the right not to be hindered, either by legal measures or by administrative action on the part of government, in the selection, training, appointment, and transfer of their own parish pastors - normal religious practices of the Catholic Church. However, in November 2012, some priests of Wuhan (Hankou) Diocese in Hubei Province held a meeting and drew up their own list of assignments and transfers between parishes. Some of the participating priests later received warnings from government officials stating the meeting itself was illegal. The priests also received warning, saying that they were not allowed to leave their parishes. On 13 December, 15 priests and nuns were escorted to the Provincial Bureau of Ethnic and Religious Affairs, where the officials announced a reshuffle of two leading clergy positions. The Board of Diocesan Consultants was also disbanded. A five-member management committee was set up and Father Francis Cui Qingqi, who is said to be close to the government, became the temporary convener of the committee .

Our Commission urges the Chinese government to: (i) eliminate the principles of “independence and autonomy, self-management of Church”; (ii) stop holding the National Assembly of Catholic Representatives; (iii) prevent the Patriotic Association overpowering the Bishops in leading and running the Church; (iv) halt its illicit episcopal ordinations; (v) respect the freedom of the Pope’s ordination of bishops; (vi) respect the autonomy of the Church, stop interfering its internal and personnel arrangements, including protect Wuhan (Hankou) Diocese’s freedom in exercising its rights to make personnel arrangements.

(II)

The Chinese government claims that no clergy and followers are obliged to join the Patriotic Association, and some churches have been able to resist successfully the establishment of Patriotic Association, but the fact is that they will be banned for “being illegal” and “offending against the law” if they do so. Some religious groups (mostly those from the Underground Church) have even been forced to join the Patriotic Association, house-arrested and detained.

Currently, the Chinese government carries out dual management systems for the establishment of religious organizations, which means there is assessment and approval by the registration department (Ministry of Civil Affairs) and the affairs management department (State Administration for Religious Affairs). These departments strictly control the establlishment of religious organizations that are not considered to share common interests with the government. By regulations and legislation, the Chinese government entitles organizations like the Catholic Patriotic Association to be the only and the sole legal and officially approved organization in the Church. Those clergy and followers who are unwilling to join this organization are bound to face difficulties in setting up any new activity, which means a severe invasion of the freedoms of religion and association entitled by the international human rights covenants.

In China, all religious venues must be registered for religious practices. Otherwise, they can be regarded as illegal. According to Article 13 of the Regulation on Religious Affairs, for setting up religious venues, religious organizations are required to make applications to the Religious Affairs Bureau. Owing to the strict restrictions of the government on setting up religious organizations, what are called “religious organizations” in mainland China in fact refer to those under government control. For those mainland religious groups which intend to register with the government department, they need “patriotic religious organizations” to be their agents. That means they have to recognize or even join these bodies. That also implies a condition for registering religious venues. If the faithful do not accept this arrangement, they will become “illegal”.

In recent years, the Chinese government might seem to have relaxed a little on non-government organisations’ administration, but many of them still face enormous limitations. For religious organizations, they are still tightly controlled and lack freedom of association.

Our Commission urges the Chinese government to respect the faithful’s freedom of association and stop forcing the faithful to join the Catholic Patriotic Association;  protect the faithful’s rights to establish their own religious organizations freely; and repeal regulations which restrict freedom of association, particularly the Regulation on Religious Affairs, Regulations on the Management of Registration of Religious Social Organizations and Regulations on the Management of Registration of Social Organizations.

(III)

As in late February 2013, Father Ma Wuyong and Father Liu Honggeng of Baoding Diocese in Hebei Province have been still detained unlawfully without any prosecution and trial. Father Ma was arrested on 6 August 2004. Before the lunar new year of 2006, he was temporarily released, but was arrested again one month later and is still in detention. Father Liu was arrested on 27 December 2006 and is also still detained.

It has not been the first time that the clergy are detained unlawfully over long periods, without prosecution. It is reported that clergy are forced to sign agreements that they would support socialism in China, adhere to the “independent, self-supporting and self-governing” approach to running the Church, accept the leadership from the Patriotic Association, and concelebrate with clergy from the Patriotic Association, etc. They are told that they would only be released if they sign those agreements. These acts imposed by the government violate the right to liberty, the freedom of religion and conscience.

As in late February 2013, the following clergy are still missing:

• Bishop James Su Zhemin: He is from Baoding Diocese of Hebei Province. He was born in 1932 and is about 81 years old. He was arrested in Xinji city, near Shijiazhuang of Hebei Province, on 8 October 1997. He has been missed for fifteen years.

• Bishop Cosmas Shi Enxiang: He is from Yixian Diocese of Hebei Province. He was born in 1921 and is 92 years old. He was arrested in Beijing on Good Friday of 2001. Bishop Shi is missing but presumed dead.

• Father Lu Genjun: He is from Baoding Diocese of Hebei Province. He was arrested in February 2006. For years, nothing was heard of him. By February 2013, he is still under secret detention.. He was later released.

Our Commission urges the Chinese government to release all detained and missing Church people immediately.

(IV)

Many clergy’s personal liberty is often arbitrarily deprived, under completely unlawful and groundless conditions. For example, they would be restricted from leaving the church or residence; they are abducted and confined in guesthouses, hotels or the so-called “Socialism School”. Such a practice operates extensively during sensitive occasions (e.g. during important international events or major religious congresses).

Our Commission is extremely concerned about the situation of Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin, the auxiliary bishop of Shanghai Diocese. At his own ordination on 7 July 2012, Bishop Ma expressed his wish to resign from the duties of Catholic Patriotic Association and devote his effort to pastoral things and evangelization. He was taken away the same afternoon, went missing for some time and later confirmed to be restricted from movement and confined in the Sheshan Seminary in Shanghai.

By early March 2013, Bishop Ma has been confined in the Sheshan Seminary, deprived from personal liberty and barred from exercising his rights as a Bishop.

Our Commission urges the Chinese government to: (i) stop violating Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin’s personal liberty and other basic rights; (ii) respect him as the auxiliary bishop and protect his rights in freely conducting his pastoral works; (iii) stop any unlawful house arrest, detaining people in hostels and any other act restricting one’s right to liberty.

(V)

The Chinese government has been treating the underground church members inhumanely. For example in Zhangjiakou Region of Hebei Province, the authority has been forcing the local clergymen to apply for clergy licence, join the Patriotic Association and accept the principles of “independence and autonomy, self-management of Church”. Since 2006, at least 20 clergy were subjected to unlawful detention, physical assaults and so on.

Example 1: On 10 January 2011, Father Peter Zhang Guangjun of Xuanhua Diocese in Hebei Province was forcibly escorted to a hotel. He was treated inhumanely during detention, not allowed to sleep for five days and nights and forced to stand the whole time. After some rounds of negotiation, he was temporarily released on 2 February 2011. On 8 March 2011, he was called to present at the United Front Work Department, where he was forcibly transferred to a hotel and was beaten there. An official hit him with a 10 kg bucket and used a folding table to grip his neck, and hit him with the table legs mercilessly. Father Zhang was finally released on 13 April 2011. He suffers from post-concussion syndrome, often gets headache and vomits.

Example 2: On 9 April 2011, Father Joseph Chen Hailong of Xuanhua Diocese in Hebei Province was escorted by plain-clothes police in Yanqing County of Beijing City. During his detention, the officials disallowed him to lie down for rest and he had sleep deprivation for four full days. He was put in solitarily confinement in room without any windows and given not enough food. For two months, he was living in isolation and hunger and had almost a mental breakdown. He requested for medical treatment due to his ill health but was rejected by the officials, until the very last moment. He was finally released in late July 2011.

Our Commission urges the Chinese government to seriously investigate ill-treatment and torture against Catholics, compensate and apologize to the injured; and stop such torture and inhuman acts against the Church people.

(Republished with permission from Asia News, where it was first published on 9 April 2015.)

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