08/20/2008, 00.00
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Beijing, religious freedom according to the Olympics

by Wang Zhicheng
Foreigners are guaranteed ceremonies, meetings and even mass in their own language; Chinese Catholics from the Official Church are ordered not to hold large gatherings that last too long. Bishops and priests from the underground Church are under house arrest. Msgr. Giulio Jia Zhiguo under round the clock police surveillance. The pretty pictures of China Daily.

Beijing (AsiaNews) – Double standards: while in the Olympic village foreigners enjoy full (or almost full) religious  freedom, the Official and underground Church in China are under strict surveillance from both the police and Patriotic Association, to “avoid  mass gatherings” and “guarantee security” during the Games.

As was promised by the Chinese government, there is an entire area of the Olympic village dedicated to spirituality and prayer. Catholic and protestant Christians share common spaces: there are also locations for Buddhists and Muslims, Hindus and Jews.  Attention too has been paid to the quality of the food offered according to religious credence: vegetarian, halal, kosher….. Some Olympic teams have their own chaplain to celebrate mass, meet with the faithful, and speak freely etc…..

According to Chinese chaplains present on the ground there are even functions that see the participation of both foreign and Chinese faithful.  All of this however, takes place in the sealed off Olympic village, access to which is restricted to registered persons or persons accompanied by them.

Tourists from abroad are treated in general with great largesse, even if there are a few exceptions.  A group of American Christians were stopped in Kunming (Yunnan) because they were carrying 300 copies of the Bible, Chinese law prohibits the importing of religious books in quantities superior to those needed for personal use.

Given the presence of foreign tourists in the city, in Dong Tang (St Joseph’s Church) and Bei Tang (St Saviour’s Church) masses in Italian and German are being offered by mother-tongue priests. Some Chinese are taking part in these ceremonies.  It is, as of yet, unclear if this freedom will continue after the Olympics.   A Chinese priest told AsiaNews that the government will have to evaluate the possibility of future “security problems”.  Up until now masses in different languages with foreign celebrants were held in the embassies (in “extra-territorial” spaces), but where Chinese are not permitted: local police control and register the passports of the faithful as they enter.

Attempts to separate Chinese faithful from their foreign counterparts is part of the overall plan of the Patriotic Associations to build a national Church, cut off from all others.  This is why, despite the heavy criticism of China’s internet censorship, many Catholic websites with pages in Chinese are still blocked.  Among them: Vatican Radio, AsiaNews, the websites for the Church in Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore…..

The “security” issue has long dominated the Chinese social scene where every day, because of corruption, pollution, expropriations, between 200 and 300 revolts explode, but instead of tackling the cause of the clashes, the preferred choice is to arrest protesters, shoot at the crowds, and stamp out gatherings.  During the Olympics, China is doing everything in its power to put on a modern and liberal face, but in its attempts to promote this image it has banned all protests including demonstrations and petitions, forbidding all forms of voiced dissent from the official line.  The Christian communities are also paying the price for this, even though no Christian has ever been charged with violence against the nation.

Already ahead of the Olympics all the bishops and priests from the Official Church received a letter and recommendations not to organise special gatherings and celebrations during the Games.  If such events had already been programmed then participation had to be limited to 200 people and last as short a time as possible.   So it is that many priests, fearful of keeping the faithful too long in Church, choose not to give homilies, not even on Sundays.

According to AsiaNews sources, the situation of the underground Church is far worse: beyond the bishops, who have been missing for years, for the past weeks many other underground bishops and priests are under house arrest and the faithful have been threatened against holding any form of gathering during the period, otherwise “there will be consequences after the Olympics”.

In Hebei, bishop of Zhengding, Msgr. Giulio Jia Zhiguo, is under 24 hour surveillance.  Police have even set up a hut in front of the prelate’s house from where, in alternating shifts, they can keep him under constant control, allowing him to meet no-one.

Even in Tianjin bishops and priests are under house arrest.  Threatened with heavy fines, the faithful are being “invited” not to host any underground priests.  In many regions, the communities which usually hold catechism courses for the youth in the summer have been forced to cancel all of their plans.  Other priests have been “advised” by police to go on holidays in order to keep them far from their communities.

The impressions of many observers are that China wants to present an image of openness and freedom to the outside world, but within, they continue their control and restrictions.   In order to boost this image of a “paradise” of religious freedom, the semi-official English language newspaper,  China Daily, (read by most tourists), during this period has done a series of reports on Beijing’s Churches and their history.


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