Rome (AsiaNews) In China religion is persecuted at an ideological level by state-sponsored atheism but also at an economic level through seizure and sales of Church property and abuses by the state's Religious Affairs Bureau and the Patriotic Association.
Under Communist rule, local officials have been pocketing money from transactions involving properties and goods estimated to be worth some 130 billion yuan ( 13 billion; US$ 16 billion).
Although the Church gets some revenue, what it really wants is to regain control so that it can use its properties to fund its mission to the poor of China.
The central government has passed legislation returning confiscated properties but local officials have failed to enforce the law; instead, they are not shy to use violent means worthy of the mafia against anyone daring to demand justice.
Few can in fact forget the case of the 16 Franciscan nuns beaten by 40 "hooligans" for trying to defend a school they owned which local authorities sold to a property developer.
And who can forget the group of Catholic clergymen and lay people in Taiyuan who tried to prevent their church's property in Tianjin from being seized by the Religious Affairs Bureau.
And lest we forget, violence and abuse have not spared Protestants either. Just a few weeks ago a thousand police officers destroyed a church in Zhejiang claiming that the area was earmarked for commercial and residential development.
To better understand what is behind all this, AsiaNews spoke to Dr Anthony Lam, from the diocese of Hong Kong's the Holy Spirit Study Centre. Currently in Rome for research, Dr. Lam wrote an article on the issue, "A Review of Catholic Real Estate Issues in China", published by Tripod (Nº 140, Spring 2006, pp. 43- 57).
Dr Lam, more and more reports are coming out of mainland China on a new problem between state and Church, namely the issue of Church properties . . .
The issue of Church property is really acute. The government and the Church must urgently find a solution. In principle, a solution already exists. At the end of the eighties the government adopted a policy whereby it would return all properties seized before and during the Cultural Revolution. But as it is always the case in China, one thing is what the central government decides, and another thing is what local governments do.
In China, party members are first to violate the law. Many officials in their official capacities use their position to their own personal benefit. Since the eighties the Religious Affairs Bureau and the Patriotic Association have used their authority to sell Church properties to third parties, private citizens, or developers.
From all this property changing hands, the Church has not received one penny. From a legal stand point things have gotten very messy. Now, land and buildings are claimed by more than one owner: the Church which can prove that it held the title to the property for decades, and the new owner, who bought it.
How big is the problem?
Quite big! In the past the Church acquired land to increase its activities or bought once marginal areas that are now worth much more. Investments in Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Canton, Wuhan, Chengdu and Xian were used to finance the Church's activities in more remote regions of China, in the countryside, or in socially-relevant projects like kindergartens, schools, orphanages, health clinics, hospitals . . . . Now the Church no longer runs any of them. It is the Religious Affairs Bureau that does it on behalf of the Church. Its leaders and those of the Patriotic Association rake in money and turn a little over to the Church. Take the diocese of Henan. It owns a building in Tianjin. The Bureau rents if for 4 million yuan ( 400,000; US$ 500,000) a year. And what does the Church get? 40,000 yuan (( 4,000; US$ 5,000)! In my estimation, economic transactions involving Church property are around 130 billion yuan ( 13 billion; US$ 16 billion). It's an incredible amount of money. And as we go through old title deeds found in the archives it is possible that it might be even greater.
Is the government in Beijing involved?
Generally speaking, the central government has not benefited from these dealings, except perhaps in Beijing itself. For example, Beitang parish, i.e. the Holy Saviour Church, originally Beijing's cathedral, owned land that went as far at the walls of the Imperial Palace. The government then took it over for public use, to build roads, building, etc. But as far as other places are concerned, the central government has no part in it.
What can be done to solve the conflict?
The Church is still committed to its social mandate, which includes running kindergartens, health clinics and rural schools for the poor that the government doesn't fund. It is urgent to find a solution. With its properties, the Church can fund Catholics' social and charity work. More importantly, it is not fair for the Religious Affairs Bureau to pocket money from managing Church property, but it is a God-given right for the Church to make use of them. I think, together, a solution must be found. Government and Church should set up a commission that will find the right thing to do.
Are there steps the government can take to solve the issue?
I think so. Even the new regulations passed in March last year say Churches have the right to hold property. They don't however spell out such a right can be upheld after being violated for decades. Within this problem there is another one, namely what to do with the old properties once owned by international and missionary institutes in China. The government could fear an onslaught of claims by foreign organisations. Perhaps it would be better if missionary institutes agreed to transfer their old properties to legitimate Church leaders.
Will the issue affect the dialogue between China and the Vatican?
For now, the issue does not seem to be affecting the dialogue between Beijing and the Holy See. Unless the Vatican goes public with it, I doubt China will say or do anything about it.
What is the Patriotic Association's current view of the issue?
The PA knows it must grab these properties. Should relations with the Vatican be normalised, PA leaders know that they won't be any longer in control of the Church. For this reason, they are trying to make the most of the situation by selling Church property and pocketing the money.
Ideologically and economically, the PA controls the Church today. But the government must take hold of the situation and choose a solution that is best for Chinese society: one in which the Catholic Church manages its properties to further the common good, especially for the poor, or one in which some associations further their own economic interests at the cost of social tensions.