Shanghai (AsiaNews) – The Chinese government has imposed new restrictions and various controls on those who want to visit Our Lady of Sheshan shrine, a site much venerated by Chinese Catholics. The authorities also “warned” surrounding dioceses not to bring organised groups to the shrine for the first World Day of Prayer for the Chinese Church called by Pope Benedict XVI for 24 May, a day dedicated to the national shrine, the first to open in the Far East.
In his Letter to Chinese Catholics published last 30 June, Benedict XV had set that day aside to celebrate a day of prayer for China. In it he said that 24 May was the feast of Our Lady, Help of Christians, solemnly celebrated by Chinese pilgrims in the Marian shrine of Sheshan, about 50 kilometres south-west of Shanghai. More than 20,000 registered visitors went there last year during May.
For this year’s pilgrimage more pilgrims are expected, but a Catholic source told the UCA News agency that local government officials have warned them not to visit Sheshan or organise pilgrimages for the month of May.
Travel agencies in Zhejiang province, which neighbours Shanghai, have also declined to organise pilgrimage tours to Sheshan in May.
Some Shanghai Catholics reported that security officers have installed surveillance cameras at Sheshan and that pilgrims must submit their names ahead of time through their parish to the government.
Local hotels and restaurants have also been told not to welcome tourists for the whole month of May.
An underground priest said that public security officers warned Catholics not to visit Sheshan in pilgrimage because local officials have been unhappy about the Pope's call for prayers for China, which they interpreted as "the pope seeing China's situation unfavourable and that it needs prayers.” The officials have “misunderstood the Pope's goodwill,” he said since the Church often prays for the well-being of countries.
Should individual Catholics want to visit Sheshan, he added, officers warned them to avoid peak days—the 1-3 May public holidays, 23 and 24 May, and all weekends in May.
Many dioceses organised pilgrimages in April to avoid all these problems.
The government has justified all these measures on security grounds, as a way to avoid large gatherings and unpleasant situations. Thus, traffic restrictions have been imposed on the suburban Sheshan area, where the popular Sheshan Marian Shrine is located, from April 30 to May 25.
Cars will not be allowed to use the Sheshan Ring Road from 5 am to 2 pm from May 1 until May 25. They are also banned from entering the area enclosed by Waiqingsong Highway from 5 am to 5 pm on May 1, 4 and 24.
Some local residents have complained about the traffic restrictions because May 1, Labour Day, is the start of a three-day public holiday, and Sheshan is a resort area with luxury hotels which now will not be available for the holidays.
For some analysts tighter controls are a consequence to the unrest in Tibet which makes any gathering suspect to the authorities. But there is also a desire to stop the Papal gesture which is the create unity between the Church in China and the universal Church.
The diocese of Hong Kong had planned a pilgrimage to Sheshan for 24 May. But the growing obstacles set up by the local government have pushed the diocese of Cardinal Zen to cancel the pilgrimage.