11/30/2005, 00.00

Nuns beaten in Xian: the government asks the diocese to pay for the school that it already owns

One of the nuns risks permanent paralysis; another has gone blind in one eye. The government has offered 3000 yuan as compensation. The European and Italian Parliaments are asking China for full respect of religious freedom.

Rome (AsiaNews) – The 16 nuns who were beaten and injured for having defended a school that was about to be demolished can comfort themselves with the 3,000 yuan (approximately 300 euros) that Xian city officials have said they are willing to pay to close the case. Moreover, the city government offered to sell the school property to the local bishop for 6.5 million yuan (roughly 650,000 euro), even if the school already belongs to the diocese.

Last November 23, at 9 p.m., 40 "thugs" mocked and then beat 16 nuns who were inside the school that, until the Cultural Revolution, had belonged to the convent of the Missionary Franciscans of the Sacred Heart and that the government wanted to demolish, after having sold it to a land developer.

A week from the attack, 5 nuns remain hospitalized. Sr Dong Jianian, age 42, risks permanent paralysis, having suffered injuries to her back. Another, Sr Qing Jing, age 34, has gone blind in one eye. Sr Yue Xiuyin (age 31), Sr Wang Maizao (32) and Sr Zan Hongfeng (34) sustained injuries to their chest, head, face and legs. Sr Zan also has a dislocated shoulder. The condition of the other sisters has improved after an initial critical stage.

The night of the attack, 200 sisters were at the school to guard it against demolition. When the thugs appeared, the nuns went out to stop them. Several men told them that they had been sent by the district education office. "Then," one sister explains, "our sisters where beaten up with sticks. Some men shouted, 'Kill them! Kill them!'". Nuns from the nearby convent phoned police, but their calls went unanswered.

Government officials and police took action only after the protest carried out by Catholics of Xian on November 27, when 600 people marched through the city centre carrying banners that protested acts of "robbery". The group dispersed only after officials promised to resolve the problem.

Yesterday, the government proposed its solution: 3000 yuan as compensation to each injured sister and an offer to let the diocese buy the school for 6.5 million yuan. The Archbishop of Xian, Msgr Anthony Li Duan (one of the bishops invited by Pope Benedict XVI to the recent Synod on the Eucharist) is in hospital for cancer treatment. The government's proposal was accepted by Xian's Auxiliary Bishop, Msgr Dang Mingyan, but members of the faithful remain puzzled and are against the proposal.

The school already belongs to the diocese and, since it is no longer used by the state, by Chinese law, it should be returned to its legitimate owners. "We don't have all this money," one priest says, "and then, I don't understand: they were taking our property away and now they tell us to pay?" Another priest says, "This land belonged to the Church and now we have to pay for our land. Is this reasonable? But this is the Bishop's decision and we don't know if the sisters will suffer any after-affects."

The sisters too are not satisfied. According to some, the compensation amount is hardly enough to cover their medical costs. Moreover, they added, government officials have not even apologized.

The Rosary School is located in the city centre, near the sisters' convent and the Xian Cathedral. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) it was confiscated by the state and turned into an elementary school. In 2003, the school was set up in another location and the building was left empty. By law, it should be returned to its legitimate owners. Instead the government sold it to a land developer who wants to build apartments in view of the Olympics.

This violent attack against the nuns has aroused the interest of various Italian politicians. The Honourable Mario Mauro, Vice-President of the European Parliament, recalled the incident in Brussels and in a statement said that European institutions "must quit basing its relations with China solely on the criteria of developing economic trade." "It's time to make Beijing understand," he added, "that the lack of recognition for religious freedom cannot be bartered with economic development. Religious freedom is in fact the only basis on which China can achieve balanced development that respects the person and society."

In Italy, M.P. Maurizio Lupi and other 39 parliamentarians addressed an urgent question to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to ask the Italian government "to protest formally" against human rights violations in China and to take steps "at the international level to defend against violations of religious freedom."

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