Beijing (AsiaNews) - Priests under house arrest; others forced to visit a Buddhist temple; others under surveillance for days, to prevent them from praying "with the pope"; dozens of faithful in Hong Kong warned not to go to Sheshan: this is the world in which some of the dioceses of China have experienced (or better: forcibly omitted) the World Day of Prayer for the Church in China instituted by Benedict XVI.
The day was suggested by the pope for last May 24, to coincide with the traditional pilgrimage to the shrine of the Virgin of Sheshan, near Shanghai. The local government and the Patriotic Associations permitted the pilgrimage only for the priests and religious of the diocese of Shanghai, and prohibited the faithful of other Chinese communities from participating in it.
For this year, because of the pope's initiative, the diocese of Shanghai had been expecting at least 200,000 people. But because of all of the limits imposed, only 2,500 faithful were able to visit the Marian shrine on May 24.
In order to enforce the prohibitions and bans, in some dioceses the police monitored or arrested official and underground priests.
According to information obtained by AsiaNews, underground Shanghai bishop Joseph Fan Zhongliang and all of his clandestine priests were severely controlled or placed under house arrest since the beginning of May, to prevent them from participating.
About a dozen underground and official priests of Zhengding (Shijiazhuang, Hebei) were arrested on May 23, and not released until after May 25. Some of them were forced to "take a trip" in the company of the police, or were forced to remain at home or in a hotel.
The official priests of the diocese of Shanbei (Shanxi) were forced to "take a trip" to a Buddhist temple in Shanxi, beginning on May 23. They were not set free and allowed to return to their dioceses until May 25.
The priests of the diocese of Hohhot (Inner Mongolia) were required to meet with the police. An official of the office for religious affairs ordered them "not to respond to the appeal of the pope of Rome", and prohibited them from making any public gesture of prayer for the Church in China for May 24.
In the diocese of Taiyuan (Shanxi), the Shrine of our Lady of Graces (Bansishan), a traditional pilgrimage destination, was closed by the local government. On May 24, thousands of police blocked the access road to the shrine to stop the flow of pilgrims, who were forced to return home. According to eyewitnesses, the police forces greatly outnumbered the pilgrims.
The priests of the diocese of Xuanhua (Hebei) were threatened with "serious consequences" if they should dare to carry out religious activities on May 24. The same was done for the underground priests of Linqing (Shandong).
To this depressing picture must be added the hardships of 80 Catholics of Hong Kong, who were stopped in Shanghai and blocked from going to Sheshan. The diocese of Hong Kong had originally planned a pilgrimage of 1,000 people for May 24. But the difficulties and obstacles posed by the local government led Cardinal Zen to cancel the pilgrimage. In spite of this, 80 people of the diocese went privately to Nanjing, and then to Shanghai. From here, they hoped to obtain permission to go to Sheshan. Instead, the group was blocked and prohibited even from celebrating Mass in the churches of Shanghai. The police and the office for religious affairs threatened to revoke the license to operate in China from the travel agency that had planned the trip.
Some of the faithful interviewed by AsiaNews affirm that the restrictions and controls are connected to the tension created by the uprisings in Tibet, which are casting suspicion on any assembly of people. But it is now also clear that there was an attempt to override a gesture called for by the pope, to create unity between the Church in China and the universal Church.
One underground Christian has told AsiaNews that there is a genuine "war" underway on the part of the Patriotic Association, against the instructions of the pope. "The pope's letter [editor's note: published last June 30] condemns the interference of the PA in the life of the Church. The secretaries of the PA are thus afraid of losing their privileges of control over the life and property of the Church. For this reason, they are blocking the Holy Father's instructions any way they can".
"All of this", he adds, "hurts China: is this the kind of religious freedom that the Chinese government is presenting to the world, a few months from the Olympics? If China wants the respect of the international community, before all else it must respect its people's right to religious freedom".