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Underground Catholic followers in China torn by rapprochement between Beijing, Vatican

An underground church in a village in Heibei Province in northeastern China is seen from a hole in the closed door of a gate. Its stately appearance is a testament to the deep devotion of its Catholic congregation. (Mainichi)

BEIJING -- In the early hours of April 1, a Catholic Chinese man called this reporter in a trembling voice: "I cannot go to the place we promised to meet. The authorities came to my house and warned me not to go out."

The caller is a member of an underground church that is not approved by the government. China severed diplomatic ties with the Vatican in 1951, and after that, the Catholic population in China was divided in two -- those accepting the guidance of the Chinese Communist Party and those refusing to accept the government intervention that stuck with the Holy See.

The plan had been to meet the man the next day in a village in northeastern Heibei Province, where an underground church is located. The man regularly attended services from another province. The reason he received the warning on April 1 was because that day was Catholic Easter, one of the most important days for the faith commemorating the resurrection of Jesus. Regulators have set their watchful eyes on gatherings at churches on such large holidays in recent years.

Several days after the call, this reporter visited the Hebei village and talked with local residents. Some of them acknowledged that they go to the underground church, but they were mostly tight-lipped. About half an hour after the interviews began, men who appeared to be from the local authorities arrived in a black car, and began to warn us not to get too close to local residents, watching us from a distance.

How the authorities try to control underground churches varies from place to place, also depending on the time. According to Catholic media outlets, there are areas where people are allowed to worship while priests are detained in other locations. An individual close to a church explained, "Bishops and Fathers become targets because Catholics follow them." Not only churches, but also schools and welfare facilities that they run have been closed one after another.

Followers of these underground churches pride themselves on their perseverance over half a century carrying on "the right faith" under such tough conditions. That is why they were shocked when the Vatican recently moved to improve ties with China. "Will we be abandoned?" they wondered.

The Holy See emphasizes that it can only protect followers and normalize the faith by securing its influence in China. It appears that the Catholic authority also hopes to attract the Chinese faithful as it loses young followers in Europe and the United States.

However, even Catholic officials are concerned about mending ties with China. Hong Kong's outspoken Cardinal Joseph Zen has stated that mending relations is akin to placing Chinese followers in a "birdcage" controlled by the Communist Party, and urged Pope Francis to carefully consider the matter.

The congregations of underground churches are deeply troubled.

"The dialogue between Beijing and the Vatican is like the tale of the serpent seducing Eve into eating the prohibited fruit from Genesis in the Old Testament," said one female follower in Heibei Province, indicating her strong feelings of disbelief toward the Chinese authorities. But obedience to the Holy Father, who represents Jesus, is at the foundation of Catholic teachings that they keep close to their hearts. If Pope Francis wants reconciliation with China, it can be said that accepting papal guidance is the duty of the faithful.

The Heibei man who was told not to go out during Easter said he absolutely pledged to follow "every decision" of the Pope. He still wonders once in a while if the Holy Father "really understands" the situation in China. "I just continue to pray for the church. I don't want to think too much about anything else," he said. He said he is seeking the light to remove the darkness of confusion plaguing the faith.

(Japanese original by Keisuke Kawazu, Beijing Bureau)

This is Part 2 of a series.

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