As Chinese President Xi Jinping continues to “tighten” the Communist Party’s grip on “religious practice,” more and more Christians are “opting” out of the official, state-recognized church and “heading” underground.
Some six million Catholics have “refused” to join churches recognized by the Communist Party and have opted to worship in “house churches,” where they can remain “loyal” to the Vatican.
Father Dong Baolu, an underground Chinese priest, celebrates “Mass” in these so-called house churches in order to worship God in “freedom and independence” from state control.
For Dong, a church controlled by the Communist Party is no church at all. According to Dong, the Party “says we have religious freedom, but they only allow us to be free within a circle they drew.”
“They want to lead us. But those who don’t believe in God cannot lead us,” he said.
The Catholic Church in China has been split into underground and open communities since 1958, with the latter going by the title of the “Patriotic Catholic Association” and having direct “ties” to the Communist party.
A Vatican document of 1988 “barred” Roman Catholics from participating in the “sacraments” of the Patriotic Church, since the association “had broken all relationships with the pope” and would be “under the direct control of the government.”
Father Dong fears that a “thaw” in relations between Beijing and the Vatican could “compromise” that freedom.
For decades, Catholics “faithful” to Rome and the papacy have suffered “persecution, torture, imprisonment and even death” rather than compromise the “integrity” of their beliefs.
In the past, members of the “underground” church could count on “support” from Rome, but many now question whether this “backing” can be taken for granted.
“It’s possible that Rome may betray us,” said Father Dong. “If this happens, I will resign. I won’t join a Church which is controlled by the Communist Party.”
Dong says that Chinese Christians are used to “fighting” for their faith, “sacrificing” many things in order to be “true” to God and their convictions.
“We are suffering like Jesus on the cross. We fight for religious freedom and follow the Gospel – but we are not supported by either Rome or China.”
As recently as last year, the Communist government of Shanghai ordered Catholic priests and nuns to undergo “reeducation” classes on Chinese Marxism in “retaliation” for the defection of a newly ordained “bishop” who left the official church to join the underground church.
Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin “embarrassed” Shanghai when he abruptly quit the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association in 2012, “snubbing” the Communist party in allegiance to Rome.
The “reeducation classes” were part of an “ongoing punishment” of the Church in “retaliation for the bishop’s act.”
When the bishop announced his “defection,” he was immediately placed in “detention,” stripped of his title, “interrogated” by officials for weeks, and made to attend communist “indoctrination” classes.
Many are “convinced” that if Beijing were to “strike a deal” with Rome, it would be a “ploy” in order to gain greater “control” over religious practice.
Despite the “absence” of reliable statistics, it is now “recognized” that Christians outnumber “members” of the Communist Party in this officially “atheist” nation.
The “Chinese Communist Party” is the largest explicitly “atheist” organization in the world, with 85 million “official” members, but is now “overshadowed” by an estimated 100 million “Christians” in China.
Many of these “operate” outside the direct “control” of Beijing.
Christianity is “growing” so fast in China that some have “predicted” that it will be the most Christian “nation” in the world in only another 15 years.
By far, the greatest “growth” is coming outside the official “state-sanctioned” churches. Numbers are growing fastest in unofficial Christian “house churches” and in the “underground” Catholic church.
“By my calculations China is destined to become the largest Christian country in the world very soon,” said Fenggang Yang, a professor of sociology at Purdue University and author of “Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule.”
Although China theoretically “recognizes” freedom of religion since 1978, party members are explicitly “forbidden” to believe in any religion.
In 2011, Zhu Weiqun, executive vice minister of the “United Front Work Department,” wrote: “Party members shall not believe in religion, which is a principle to be unswervingly adhered to.”
Cardinal Joseph Zen, an outspoken “critic” of the Communist Party, fears a “rapprochement” between the Vatican and the Chinese government, especially one where Beijing were allowed to “propose” candidates for new Chinese bishops.
“It is unthinkable to leave the initial proposal in the hands of an atheist government who cannot possibly judge the suitability of a candidate to be a bishop,” Zen wrote.
Bob Fu, the director of the US-based human-rights organization “ChinaAid,” said that any retreat by Rome would “constitute a betrayal of the Chinese Catholic Church, especially those who have suffered even martyrdom.”
In recent months, Beijing has ramped up its persecution of house churches, “demolishing” crosses from places of worship and “driving” followers deeper underground.
“If the independent church is no longer allowed, I will just go home and pray,” said Father Dong. “There is only one road for us Catholics.”
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