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Catholic priest prays for unification of underground, recognized churches in China

Parishioners join in a mass held in a Catholic church in the suburbs of Beijing, on Feb. 11, 2018. (Mainichi)

BEIJING -- In the suburbs of the Chinese capital, there is a bedroom community swelling rapidly with workers from around the country, drawn by the city's promise of work and income. And they have brought with them their diverse customs, cultures, and desire to establish places of religious worship.

In one multipurpose building, there is a Catholic church. Seeming small from the outside, the interior is actually quite large, rivaling a Japanese elementary school gymnasium, and members of the congregation were bustling around preparing for mass. The faint smell of incense wafted through the air.

"About 600 parishioners always gather (for mass). Today the number is relatively small," the priest explained. He supports the ongoing efforts to restore the relationship between China and the Vatican. "Times change, and I pray that all followers of the Catholic faith can join together with the Vatican," he continued. "The current Pope understands this wish."

This particular church operates with permission from the Chinese authorities, but takes a negative view of interference in religion by government powers. The church keeps its distance both from local authorities and the government-affiliated Catholic organization the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA).

The CCPA was established on the initiative of the Chinese Communist Party in 1957, and was granted "independence" from the Vatican, holding the power to choose bishops on its own without permission from the Pope. The top bishops also occupy dual roles in the upper ranks of the government, such as acting as members of the Chinese National People's Congress. These top bishops are tasked with guiding and monitoring government-certified churches, and advance Chinese President Xi Jinping's efforts to "Sinicize" the religion.

However, this church believes that the faith is one, and there is no use in making a distinction between official and underground congregations. The priest's evaluation of the CCPA was scathing:

"People with weak faith in their hearts are monitoring true believers. They have no use whatsoever," he said. Even when a request comes for him to attend a CCPA meeting, he says he tells them that he "will fall ill" on that day and refuses to go.

The priest was born in 1976, the year China's Cultural Revolution ended. During the 10 years of the revolution, crackdowns targeted anything called a religion. The priest's grandfather was the coordinator of the followers at a government-recognized church. He also freely interacted with underground Catholics, and even offered his home for them to hold mass in place of a church, even joining in their prayers. However, when the Cultural Revolution ended, the underground followers stopped approaching him. The priest now carries on his grandfather's wish for the unification of the Catholic Church in China.

"Pain will follow if China and the Vatican improve relations," the priest confirmed. Government policies concerning religion are becoming even stricter, and there are concerns that the Vatican's move will actually harm China's Catholics. "Fair treatment is required so that underground followers do not become victims," he explained. "How the current situation of mainland China should be handled is only something the people who live here can understand."

Then the priest began to tell stories from his youth. Three police officers carrying submachine guns came to his house, destroyed a statue of Jesus inside, overturned furniture and searched thoroughly to see if their family was hiding anyone. He says that is when it was engraved in his heart how special it was to follow a faith in China.

"Under such political pressure, we have found a way to continue moving forward. Even if it is not the smoothest solution, it is important to at least open doors (to possibility)," the priest said of what he learned from his experiences.

As an example of his hopes, he brought up how secret believers in neighboring Japan overcame over and over again a ban on the faith that lasted 250 years: "A church will eternally be a church. Even the strongest of nations is unable to steal away our culture."

This is the final part in a series.

(Japanese original by Keisuke Kawazu, China General Bureau)

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