Beijing (AsiaNews) The new wave of arrests against underground priests is a failure, useless and childish. It only increases the number of sympathisers and vocations to the priesthood in the underground church. What is more, it pushes underground priests to seek greater co-operation with their counterparts in the official Church.
This, in short, is how Catholics see the latest arrests of underground priests in Hebei province: two priests on November 7; the Bishop of Zhengding Julius Jia Zhiguo (see photo) on November 9; six other priests on November 18.
All of them received the same treatment: "study sessions" consisting in endless hours of brainwashing to get them to join the Patriotic Association, the state-controlled organisation set up as a national Church separate from the Holy See.
The two priests arrested on November 7 were released but warned to "give up evangelising" and "go work on a farm".
Still, hundreds of plain-clothed policemen have been sent out to monitor underground Catholic communities.
A priest from one of these communities told AsiaNews: "We shall not go back to till the soil. Times have changed and the way the government is treating the Church is childish. It only strengthens the faith and the enthusiasm of the faithful. It helps spread the Church's influence more rapidly".
The campaign to suppress underground communities has been going on to varying degrees since 1997. But despite police surveillance members of these communities have continued to meet, at midnight or 2 o'clock in the morning, with look-outs against police raids. Sometimes they get caught; other times, the police turn a blind eye.
"We have many difficulties but I am happy to see us grow stronger and our ranks swell. I am happy to see our lay people less concerned about careers, amusement, and consumerism and more about their commitment to the faith".
"Persecution is never entirely bad. It helps people be decisive and helps priests keep on their toes and work more closely with their bishop and amongst themselves," added an underground bishop.
Co-operation with the official Church has also been growing, especially in the wake of the Pope's appeal for communion.
Father Peter, from the official Church, provides material help to his underground colleagues.
"We may belong to different communities, but we also are brothers and friends, and I try my best to help any which way," he said.
Some "official" priests open their churches to underground priests to celebrate mass even if in doing so they risk jail time themselves.
Out of a sense of solidarity for their brethren, many lay people attend mass in underground churches.
"Taking part in a mass in someone's house or in a bare home church helps meditate and share our brothers' and sisters' suffering in Hebei," said one of them.
In particular, vocations are up in Hebei, where persecution is greatest. One of the smallest underground dioceses has 70 priest and 140 seminarians.
"I know many official seminaries and I know they train well for the priesthood and are in communion with the Pope," said one of these theology students. "But I realise that the underground Church needs my help. I am honoured to be here and share with them poverty and persecution in the name of Jesus."
For China's government the time has come to face the facts: it cannot eliminate the underground Church; it must deal with it.
It must stop forcing people to choose between their loyalty to the Pope and to China.
Even the official Church is loyal to the Pope, but for all that they do not want to oppose the government. Asking people to betray their Catholic faith is pointless.
Religion is no longer seen as something strange amongst Chinese, but a normal personal experience.
No one can understand why the Religious Affairs Bureau persists attacking brothers and sisters from the same nation.