As Chinese President Xi Jinping continues to tighten the Communist Party’s grip on religious practice, more and more Christians are opting out of the official, state-recognized church and heading underground.
Some six million Catholics have refused to join churches recognized by the Communist Party and have opted to worship in “house churches,” where they can remain loyal to the Vatican.
Father Dong Baolu, an underground Chinese priest, celebrates Mass in these so-called house churches in order to worship God in freedom and independence from state control.
For Dong, a church controlled by the Communist Party is no church at all. According to Dong, the Party “says we have religious freedom, but they only allow us to be free within a circle they drew.”
“They want to lead us. But those who don’t believe in God cannot lead us,” he said.
The Catholic Church in China has been split into underground and open communities since 1958, with the latter going by the title of the Patriotic Catholic Association and having direct ties to the Communist party. A Vatican document of 1988 barred Roman Catholics from participating in the sacraments of the Patriotic Church, since the association “had broken all relationships with the pope” and would be “under the direct control of the government.”
Father Dong fears that a thaw in relations between Beijing and the Vatican could compromise that freedom.
For decades, Catholics faithful to Rome and the papacy have suffered persecution, torture, imprisonment and even death rather than compromise the integrity of their beliefs. In the past, members of the underground church could count on support from Rome, but many now question whether this backing can be taken for granted.
“It’s possible that Rome may betray us,” said Father Dong. “If this happens, I will resign. I won’t join a Church which is controlled by the Communist Party.”
Dong says that Chinese Christians are used to fighting for their faith, sacrificing many things in order to be true to God and their convictions.
“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.”
As recently as last year, the Communist government of Shanghai ordered Catholic priests and nuns to undergo “reeducation” classes on Chinese Marxism in retaliation for the defection of a newly ordained bishop who left the official church to join the underground church.
Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin embarrassed Shanghai when he abruptly quit the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association in 2012, snubbing the Communist party in allegiance to Rome. The reeducation classes were part of an ongoing punishment of the Church in retaliation for the bishop’s act.
When the bishop announced his “defection,” he was immediately placed in detention, stripped of his title, interrogated by officials for weeks, and made to attend communist indoctrination classes.
Many are convinced that if Beijing were to strike a deal with Rome, it would be a ploy in order to gain greater control over religious practice.
Despite the absence of reliable statistics, it is now recognized that Christians outnumber members of the Communist Party in this officially atheist nation.
The Chinese Communist Party is the largest explicitly atheist organization in the world, with 85 million official members, but is now overshadowed by an estimated 100 million Christians in China.
Many of these operate outside the direct control of Beijing.
Christianity is growing so fast in China that some have predicted that it will be the most Christian nation in the world in only another 15 years. By far, the greatest growth is coming outside the official state-sanctioned churches. Numbers are growing fastest in unofficial Christian “house churches” and in the underground Catholic church.
“By my calculations China is destined to become the largest Christian country in the world very soon,” said Fenggang Yang, a professor of sociology at Purdue University and author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule.
Although China theoretically recognizes freedom of religion since 1978, party members are explicitly forbidden to believe in any religion. In 2011, Zhu Weiqun, executive vice minister of the United Front Work Department, wrote: “Party members shall not believe in religion, which is a principle to be unswervingly adhered to.”
Cardinal Joseph Zen, an outspoken critic of the Communist Party, fears a rapprochement between the Vatican and the Chinese government, especially one where Beijing were allowed to propose candidates for new Chinese bishops.
“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,” Zen wrote.
Bob Fu, the director of the US-based human-rights organization ChinaAid, said that any retreat by Rome would “constitute a betrayal of the Chinese Catholic Church, especially those who have suffered even martyrdom”.
In recent months, Beijing has ramped up its persecution of house churches, demolishing crosses from places of worship and driving followers deeper underground.
“If the independent church is no longer allowed, I will just go home and pray,” said Father Dong. “There is only one road for us Catholics.”
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