Rome (AsiaNews) For the first time ever, Chinese youths from the underground Church will participate in the World Youth Day. Around 100 have managed to reach Cologne to attend the XX WYD. Among them are Catholic students already studying abroad and youths coming directly from the People's Republic of China. There are priests, sisters and lay people from a number of dioceses: Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Fujian and Mongolia interior.
Reaching Cologne has not been easy. In China, the government allows only freedom of worship linked to personnel and structures officially registered with the state Religious Affairs Office and controlled by the Patriotic Association. Believers who do not accept to be controlled by official structures and who practice their faith in structures which are not registered (unofficial, underground) risk punishment for "illegal" actions and "disturbance of public order".
A youth from Shanghai explains: "The clandestine Church in China is persecuted. But the details of this persecution are little known abroad. For example, few know that the government at all levels (provincial, city, district or village) has drawn up diverse regulations both secret and public according to situations which arise.
"One of these stipulates that the police should not issue a passport to a clandestine Catholic without the permission of the religious administration authority.' Since clandestine Catholics are not down on official lists, it is very difficult for us to go abroad to study, to go on pilgrimage or to attend the World Youth Day."
The groups present in Cologne were not discouraged: they asked for their passports and visas months ago, using false ID cards and claiming they wished to go abroad for tourism.
WYD organisers are happy with their attendance in Cologne; they started preparing a catechism program specifically for them as soon as they found out about it.
"It is the first time China's clandestine Church manages to participate in the WYD," said one of the group leaders. "We want to exploit this occasion to get to know better our peers who live our same faith, to feel part of the universal Church and perhaps even to try to meet the Pope."
Another from Tianjin said: "Our communities are very alive and active. Alas, because of government controls and out of fear of being discovered, we believers do not communicate information about the underground Church in China abroad. News only comes out when a bishop is arrested, a convent is closed or a church has been destroyed. Few know about the growing evangelization, or that vocations are on the rise. As a result of the limited information at hand, it has been difficult to draft statistics: for example, a 'Guide to the Catholic Church in China' published in 2004 claims a diocese in the north has only four priests. But this was the case 10 years ago. Now this diocese has at least 70 priests and 100 sisters, the fruit of evangelization and formation targeting youths."
In recent days, a group of priests from China's official Church greeted the pope during the audience. Some episcopal appointments of the official Church have taken place with Vatican approval. "These are important signs," said an underground priest, "but we must remember that the government's religious policy has not yet changed. Many bishops and priests are still in prison. Among them, I want to recall the bishops Su Zhimin and An Shuxin of Baoding; Shi Enxiang, of Yixian; Han Dingxian, of Yongnian. There is a need for all the church to remember and to pray for them."
Even youths from China's official Church will be there in Cologne. They also arrived in Europe with generic tourist visas and not in organized groups.
In 1995, at the WYD in Manila, the official Church sent a group of its own priests and faithful. The presence of the flag of Taiwan, among others, created a political problem: the secretary of the Patriotic Association ordered all the faithful to leave the mass of Pope John Paul II because of the "offence taken". The majority of Catholics remained at the mass in hiding, disobeying the order.
In China, collaboration and integration between the two branches official and underground of the Church are increasing steadily.