Mangkam (AsiaNews/UCAN) The only Catholic parish in Tibet is struggling to finish paying off the construction costs for its new church and related buildings.
Fr Lawrence Lu Rendi, parish priest of the church in Shangyanjing village (south-eastern Tibet), said that the parish still owes builders more than 400,000 yuan (about 40,000; US$ 49,500) and is seeking contributions from local and overseas Catholics.
"The construction company staff has come several times to settle the outstanding balance, and we assured them of payment," said Father Lu, 35, the first Tibetan priest in China.
Now another Tibetan priest also serves in the parish.
Construction work was completed in October 2004.
Father Lu's 520 parishioners make up 70 percent of the village population. Most of them are ethnic Tibetans, though some are ethnic Naxi and Han Chinese women who have married local men.
The village sits 3,000 meters above sea level in Mangkam County, near the border with Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.
Catholicism was introduced in Shangyanjing in the mid-19th century by French missioners. The original century-old, European-style church was destroyed during China's Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). In 1985 the government funded a replacement church, built of clay, but an earthquake damaged it in 1999.
Father Ding Yaohua, the other Tibetan priest, said that parishioners are concerned about how the parish will be able pay the debt, but they can offer little help since they have only subsistence-level incomes.
Father Lu, a native of Shangyanjing, pointed out that, apart from almost toppling the clay church, the 1999 earthquake wrecked many houses in the village. As a result, parishioners "had to renovate or rebuild their houses and they could hardly help with the reconstruction of the church."
The priest recalled that he continued to celebrate Mass in that "dangerous building" until construction of the new church began in 2001, after the local government gave its approval.
During construction, parishioners used an open area in the church compound for liturgies, and prayed for the new church daily at mass.
The Religious Affairs Department under the Tibet Regional Ethnic and Religious Affairs Commission promised to allocate 70,000 yuan for the project, but the funds are still pending, the priest added.
The architecture of the new church is in Tibetan style, but the interior is European-influenced.
In 2003, Yokohama diocese in Japan donated three church bells, which were placed in the bell tower. They were a gift from a French missioner to a Yokohama church about 50 years ago.
Both Tibetan priests were ordained in Xi'an (Shaanxi province) by Bishop Anthony Li Du'an of Xi'an.
Father Lu studied at the National Seminary in Beijing before his ordination in 1996. Since then he has been serving in Shangyanjing.
Nine years later, Father Ding came to assist him. The Yunnan province native was ordained on August 11, 2005, after finishing his studies at Shaanxi Catholic Seminary.
Before the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Shangyanjing parish, which is 2,025 kilometres south-west of Beijing, was under Kangding diocese, based in Sichuan province.
It was designated for pastoral work among Tibetan Catholics in Sichuan, Yunnan and Tibet.
According to the China State Council's May 2004 white paper on Regional Ethnic Autonomy in Tibet, there are 4.6 million Tibetans in the Tibet Autonomous Region and the surrounding provinces of Gansu, Qinghai and Yunnan.
Most Tibetans adhere to Tibetan Buddhism, but there are also 3,000 Muslims and 700 Catholics.