Up From the Underground

Bishop Julius Jia Zhiguo says Chinese police have made it difficult for him to run an orphanage for disabled children.
Bishop Julius Jia Zhiguo says Chinese police have made it difficult for him to run an orphanage for disabled children. (Photo Courtesy Of Julius Jia Zhiguo)
By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 29, 2005

WUQIU, China -- Off a muddy road in this rural village in China's northern Hebei province, near green fields of freshly planted wheat, police stood guard around a majestic brick cathedral, blocking visitors from entering. But after nightfall, when villagers carrying flashlights began arriving for Mass, it was possible to slip inside.

Julius Jia Zhiguo, 71, a bishop in China's underground Catholic Church, was waiting. A slight smile crossed his wrinkled face as he explained that police have restricted his movements for more than a decade. "They have never stopped trying to control the underground church," he said.

Then Jia changed into white robes and celebrated Mass in the cathedral, which was built with the tacit approval of local officials two years ago. Hundreds of villagers joined him, as they do every night in Wuqiu, and the police did nothing to stop them.

The scene highlights the mixed legacy of Pope John Paul II and the challenge that awaits his successor, Benedict XVI, in the world's most populous nation. Nearly crushed during the religious persecution of the Cultural Revolution, China's Catholics staged a remarkable comeback during the papacy of John Paul. But they remain divided from the rest of the church, and among themselves, because he never achieved his goal of normalizing relations with China.

About 5 million Chinese Catholics belong to government-approved "patriotic" churches that reject the Vatican's full authority, according to the Chinese government. The Vatican estimates that 8 million others worship in illegal underground churches that have defied the Communist Party by remaining loyal to the pope.

And yet the church's position here is probably stronger than at any time since the 1949 Communist revolution, when Beijing broke ties with the Vatican. Though police continue to harass and imprison priests and bishops in the underground church, several have been allowed to operate openly. At the same time, the Vatican has slowly infiltrated the government's official church, winning over many of its clergymen and exerting unprecedented influence over its operations.

Such gains give Benedict greater leverage in efforts to restore diplomatic relations with China and reunite the country's Catholics with the church. But they also reinforce the Chinese leadership's traditional suspicion of the church as a hostile force that helped subvert Communist rule in Eastern Europe and is determined to do the same in China.

Openings and Crackdowns

All but nine of the 70 bishops in the government's official church have secretly declared their loyalty to Rome and are now recognized by the Vatican, according to Ren Yanli, China's leading scholar of the church. And almost all of the new bishops approved by the government in the past five years were secretly named in advance by John Paul, said one of the bishops, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"The government knows we only ask them to approve a bishop after the pope has signed off first," he said. "They aren't happy about it, but they don't have a choice. They know the people won't accept a bishop that hasn't been named by the pope." In effect, Ren said, "the government has lost control of the patriotic church."

The government's efforts to crush the underground church have also faltered. Especially here in Hebei, home to about a quarter of all Catholics in China, many underground clergymen now perform their duties so openly that "underground" seems a misnomer.

In recent years, priests ordained by Bishop Jia have built spacious new churches in several nearby villages, some of them larger than government-approved churches. Local officials look the other way because they sympathize with worshipers or want to collect fees and fines from them, priests said.

"The religious authorities don't agree, but the other local officials don't care," one young priest said while giving a tour of his towering, ornate church, one of the largest in the region. He said he rushed to build it two years ago while the government was preoccupied with fighting the SARS epidemic. "We knew if we could finish it, they wouldn't tear it down," he said.

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