At least five Catholic nuns resisting a government plan to sell land claimed by their church to a real estate developer are hospitalized in the Chinese city of Xian after thugs armed with sticks and clubs assaulted them, a witness and others familiar with the incident said Thursday.
One of the nuns, identified as Cheng Jing, 34, was blinded in the attack and has recovered the use of only one eye, and another nun was scheduled for surgery on her spine, according to people who have visited them. A third was recovering with a broken arm, and two others incurred serious head injuries.
The attack occurred on the night of Nov. 23 on a parcel of disputed land in downtown Xian adjacent to the city's main state-sanctioned Catholic church, the Southern Cathedral. About 30 to 40 nuns were trying to stop workers from demolishing an elementary school there when the thugs began beating them, injuring at least 16, the sources said.
Violent conflicts over housing and land have become common in Chinese cities as developers, often backed by Communist Party officials, seek to evict whole neighborhoods to make way for lucrative real estate projects. But the incident in Xian is unusual because the victims were members of one of China's largest communities of nuns, the Convent of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
The convent, home to about 300 nuns, is run by the Xian diocese of the state-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. The association's churches are supposed to be loyal to the party rather than the Vatican, but in recent years the Vatican has succeeded in winning over many of their members, including most of the bishops.
A witness to the assault said police summoned to the scene rebuked the nuns for interfering with the demolition and did not arrest the men who attacked them. The witness also suggested that local officials had approved the attack in an attempt to resolve the land dispute in their favor.
Residents said that on Sunday, four days after the attack on the nuns, several hundred parishioners marched in protest through the streets of Xian, a city of 7 million about 600 miles southwest of Beijing.
The Vatican issued a statement Wednesday expressing "grief and disapproval" over the beatings. "The violence committed in Xian against several defenseless nuns can only be firmly condemned," it said.
Forty members of Italy's Parliament have urged the Italian Foreign Ministry to file a formal protest with the Chinese government, and a vice president of the European Parliament has condemned the assault, according to the Rome-based Catholic news service AsiaNews.
Reached by phone, a police official in Xian declined to comment, saying the case was under investigation. He added that police were giving the case special attention because it was "related to religious issues." The city's propaganda department and its bureau of religious affairs did not answer telephone calls.
Church sources said party leaders in Xian were trying to calm local Catholic residents and had offered to sell the half-acre property to the church for about $850,000. But church officials have balked at the price, and negotiations were continuing.
AsiaNews reported that the government had also agreed to pay about $375 in compensation to each of the injured nuns, thus acknowledging some responsibility for the incident.
The Southern Cathedral, established in 1716, owned the disputed land before the 1949 Communist revolution, and the convent managed an elementary school on it. But the party took control of the school in the 1950s or '60s, church sources said.
In the 1980s, as the party launched economic reforms and began returning property seized during Mao Zedong's rule, Xian officials refused to return the land, saying it needed to keep the elementary school open.
But two years ago, the city closed the school and prepared to sell the land to a developer who planned an apartment building on it. The church sued, asserting that it still owned the land, the sources said.
The nuns have prevented workers from tearing down the school several times, most recently on Nov. 22, the sources said. But the next day, authorities cut off electricity to the church, and a crew arrived under cover of darkness and began demolishing the school .
About 30 to 40 nuns who heard the noise rushed outside about 9 p.m. and tried to stop workers from tearing down a wall separating the school from the convent. But about 40 men dressed in black attacked the women, knocking them down and beating them with clubs and sticks, a witness said.
China's state-run news media have not reported the attack. A popular Internet site managed by a seminary in the state-sanctioned Catholic church published the news, prompting angry messages from readers, but site managers have been ordered to delete all references to the incident.
"We are deeply concerned about the violation of the honor of these nuns," read one message that remained Thursday. "We demand that officials investigate and prosecute this case as quickly as possible and adopt effective measures to stop this kind of thing from happening again, rather than incompetently blocking our dispute on the Internet."