02/04/2004, 00.00
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New churches built to destroy even more

by Bernardo Cervellera

Different than what the media says, the two churches about to be built in the capital –the first in over 50 years – will not be Catholic, but Protestant. This is what members of Beijing’s Office of Religious Affairs told AsiaNews. However, for many Catholics and Protestants there are no prospects for new churches, but instead await the demolition of their centers of worship.

The news, which has gained worldwide attention, was published in the China Daily. The newspaper said “for the first time after over half a century, two Christian churches will be built in the capital. One of them will be constructed in the Chao Yang neighborhood, while the other in the Fengtai area in the southwest outskirts of the city. The construction sites were opened in December and work will be concluded by next Christmas.”

The project is part of a proposal presented by Na Chang, member of the People’s Policy Consulting Conference. The project includes the restoration and reopening of the Tianning Buddhist temple and the reopening of the Huoshen Taoist temple.

The proposal is a sign of economic and political concern, more than that of religious freedom.

Na said that there are too many Buddhist pilgrims concentrated around Yonghegong, the Lamas’ downtown temple. The reopening of the above mentioned temples will allow the concentration of faithful to be distributed in the suburbs, thereby “avoiding crowds and incidents”.

Good or bad, the attempt to restore ancient buildings and redistribute the religious population is part of the Beijing’s urban planning project in preparation for the Olympic games. For some years the city center (inside the Erhuan, or second city loop) has been prey to forced demolitions and the super-fast construction of hotels, high-rise buildings and offices to host companies preparing for the event and those coming to capital enticed by the Chinese market. Elsewhere, 14th century homes were destroyed and, in the frenzy, a 15th century Taoist temple as well. At any rate, some churches and temples were restored as tourist stops, but there was a price tag attached: moving faithful to the outskirts of the city.

In terms of how much respect there is in all of this for religion, one fact stands out: all Catholics residing near Beitang (Our Savior Church), in the vicinity of the Forbidden City, were moved out and sent to live in the northwest area of Haidian. And they were compensated miserably. There Catholics have been waiting ages for a church. In the meantime, they are using wooden sheds as places of worship, which is illegal, in the freezing weather of Beijing. If not, they have to get up at 4 in the morning to take a bus for hours on end to attend mass in their former church.

Even the building of new Protestant churches –like those reported in the China Daly ­– does not demonstrate any changes in religious policy. The association of officially state-recognized Protestant Churches is among the most patriotic of religious communities. The building of both new churches is in response to policy criteria: while churches are being built for official communities, those of the non-official congregations are being destroyed. According news received by AsiaNews over the past few months, it is said that the so-called “house churches” are increasingly being demolished in areas around Beijing, Shanghai and Zhejiang.

Last June, authorities from the northern village of Liugou (in Hebei) ordered a church to be demolished just two weeks after its construction was finished. Some 150 Christian villagers had combined efforts and savings to build the church. Police wanted to destroy the church, since the zone was planned “for reforestation”.

According to Hong Kong’s Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy, at least 10 house churches have been destroyed by police since July. In 2003, 392 churches and temples of other faiths were destroyed or re-commissioned as “entertainment centers”.

The destiny of many Christian communities suffering the demotion of their churches is the same for many citizens of Beijing and Shanghai.

In order to carry out its urban planning project in view of the Olympics, the government has hired various construction companies capable of demolishing entire neighborhoods, expelling and seizing families from their homes, without prior notice or compensation.

The government preaches respect for private property, while entire families, including elderly and children, end up homeless. Many family members, who are prevented from taking legal recourse, have attempted suicide, setting themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square. This past Jan. 13 an elderly couple lit themselves on fire in front of the Zhongnanhai, the Imperial Palace where top communist party leaders live. One of them died, while the other is still in severe condition.

The March issue of AsiaNews (print version) is preparing a special dossier on the forced demolition of churches and houses.
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