03/20/2009, 00.00
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Xiangong: priest beaten for protecting a plot of Church-owned land seized by mayor

Mayor violates agreement with parish. Catholics call for the return of land to rightful owners and for the priest’s attackers, protected by local police, to be put on trial. Properties taken from the Church are worth 13o billion yuan (US$ 17 billion).
Rome (AsiaNews) – Two men attacked and badly hurt a priest who had been invited to discuss issues relating to a seized Church property. The attack took place in the mayor's office in Xiangong town. Fr Francis Gao Jianli, 39, from Fengxiang diocese (Shaanxi), is currently hospitalised in Baoji city where he is under police surveillance and is being interrogated.

The incident occurred last Monday. Father Gao had been asked to come to city hall to talk about a plot of land in Xiangong parish the Church had been claiming for some time. After words were exchanged the mayor called in the two attackers.

This is not the first time that the authorities resort to force to stop Catholics from demanding the return of seized land.

The most serious incident took place in November 2005 in Xian when 16 nuns were beaten for trying to defend a school slated fro demolition. Another serious case took place in Tianjin a month later in that same year at the expense of 50 priests and nuns.

The plot of land in question in Xiangong had been taken during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and a factory had been opened on the site. The latter closed down some years ago and the land was vacant. Under Chinese law the rightful owners can claim it back but the mayor blocked the request.

The Church and the district government's property management office have been in a dispute over ownership ever since. However, the two sides had agreed that the land would not be developed until a settlement was reached.

This year the town government decided instead to take over the land anyway without informing or getting the consent of the parish, sending workers to start clearing the land to build a garden that would improve the environment in this outlying area of Xiangong.

Father Gao and a few hundreds faithful held a sit-in on site to stop the work. The major then invited him to his office to discuss the issue where he was beaten. According to eyewitnesses the mayor helped the attackers flee in a police car.

When news about the violent action spread among Catholics, the faithful went en masse to demonstrate in front of the mayor’s office, where he could not be found. The day after, they went to Baoji’s central office to submit a petition in which they requested:

         that Fr Gao should receive full medical care and expenses be paid by Baoji authorities;

         that his attackers should be tried;

         that the plot of land be returned to the parish;

         that the mayor publicly apologise for what he did.

The petition office said it would try to answer shortly, perhaps by 23 March.

The diocese of Fengxiang is run by Mgr Lucas Li, the only underground bishop recognised by the government without being a member of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

According to notables in the diocese, Shaanxi and Baoji authorities have had good relations with the bishop and the Catholic community.

Across China though, seizing private property and abusing owners have become commonplace.

According to Anthony Lam of Hong Kong’s Holy Spirit Study Centre, the value of Church property seized by the party or local authorities amounts to about 130 billion yuan (or US$ 17 billion).

This is a conservative estimate. The total value could be even higher as old title deeds are found in archives spared by the fury of the Cultural Revolution. (BC)

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