04/10/2007, 00.00
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Thousands are baptised in Beijing, while in Zhejiang two priests are imprisoned

by Bernardo Cervellera
The wave of new conversions makes it difficult to find sufficient godparents. In the interim of the Pope’s long awaited letter to China’s Catholics, the Patriotic Association’s iron fist is felt, particularly in Hebei and Zhejiang.

Beijing (AsiaNews) – Thousands of people were baptised into the faith in Catholic churches across China on Easter night.  Yet in some areas the underground Church is still subjected to persecution and imprisonment.   


In Beijing alone during the Easter Vigil, the number of adult baptisms numbered in the thousands! In the Church of Our Holy Saviour (Beitang) there were 180; in St Joseph’s (Dongtang) hundreds and in the Church of St Michael, where the Chinese of Korean origins, hundreds more, added to these, baptisms carried out in the underground Church.


The wave of religious rebirth and conversion to Catholicism is so great that the Christian community is having some difficulty in finding godparents to accompany the new catechumens.  In the capital it is almost standard that any one godparent will have at least a dozen newly baptized to follow.  The situation is analogues in most of China’s large cities: Shanghai, Xian, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Xiamen, Shenzhen…


A priest and seminary professor points out to AsiaNews that contemporary Chinese society is marked by many open wounds: “the materialism of daily life,…. unbridled individualism, which generates selfishness and a lack of interest in other people, the future, the world around us”.  The Church continues the priest “answers the silent cries of these people’s hearts, the thirst for God which is spreading throughout China”.  Moreover, Christians are showing that “a healthy collaboration between faith and reason improves human life and promotes respect for creation”.  


For the most part, the newly baptized tend to come from upper class backgrounds; they are materially wealthy, high level civil servants who despite having secured a comfortable lifestyle for themselves remain unsatisfied. “Only Christianity – one of them notes – has been able to sate my spiritual needs”.  


Among those baptised are also University professors and students, people who question the meaning of existence and for whom the myths of Buddhism and Taoism, while fully respectable, have been unable to provide answers to scientific or rational exigencies.   


The neo-converts also count the poor and immigrants, young people who have come to the cities from the country, in search of some monetary relief for their families.  In the world of Chinese economics they are treated like slaves, underpaid, sometimes even unpaid and forced to work illegally.    


Forgotten and oppressed, they find help, friendship and support from the Church.  In a modern China without social welfare, Chinese Catholics are dedicated to bringing charity to many fronts:  orphans, the elderly, Aids sufferers, medical care to the poor.  This solidarity provided by the Church, official and non official, is viewed with approval by Beijing as it fills the void of social needs that the government can’t or won’t provide.  


This freedom however remains within the boundaries of government concessions.  Those seeking religious freedom who fail to adhere to the control of the Patriotic Association face arrest and prison.  In many underground communities the faithful were unable to participate in celebrations because police had been given orders to arrest priests.  In Wenzhou (Zhejiang), on Holy Thursday the police raided the designated place where the in Cena Domini mass was to have been held.  The priests succeeded in escaping arrest, minutes beforehand.   


Two diocesan priests, Fr. Shao Zhoumin and Fr. Jiang Sunian, who had falsified their documents in order to make a pilgrimage to Rome, where condemned to 9 and 11 months in prison.  In Hebei, where the underground bishop James Su Zhimin has been “missing” for the last 10 years, the police keep strict checks that there are no underground gatherings of the faithful.  All of them were forced to move elsewhere, where the situation is calmer, in order to celebrate Easter.  


According to AsiaNews data, at least 17 underground bishops have disappeared, been arrested or detained in isolation; 20 priests are currently under arrest.  The last arrest took place on December 27th in Hebei. Of the 9 priests imprisoned in that raid, 4 were freed the other 5 are still under lock and key.   The entire community, underground and official Catholics, have noted a crackdown in the Patriotic Association’s politics of control.  The new hard line is due to the fact that the majority of PA officials are now predominantly atheists, some among the most radical elements of the Party, whose aim it is to destroy religious communities, failing that to a least have strict control over their activities


Another reason behind the radicalisation of the PA is the long awaited letter of the Pope to the Church in China.  It will in fact, underline that the Church in China is one, and in its near entirety, holds faith with the Holy See.  The Pope’s letter will underscore the official failure of Chinese politics, which in over 60 years of communism has attempted to eliminate, suffocate or divide religions.  


After half a century of martyrdom, the Church in China is more alive than ever: vocations to the priesthood are on the increase, so much so that the average age of priests in many dioceses is 34-35; in many areas female diocesan vocations are also flowering.  And even if the in many areas government prohibits the birth of vocations or the gathering together of male religious, many priests are choosing to live together following the monastic rule.  


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