Authorities are pulling out all the stops to shove “disobedient” believers under the state’s control: churches shut down, congregations threatened and surveilled.
by Tang Zhe
Provincial and municipal governments across China are intensifying efforts to close down underground meeting venues where conscientious objectors who refuse to join the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) continue to practice their faith. Such actions by the government are disregarding and distorting the Vatican’s June 28 pastoral guidelines that allow Catholic priests and Bishops to join the CPCA but also permit “conscientious objection” by those who believe joining the state-run organization is against their principles.
Confidential document calls for the suppression of underground Catholic venues
According to government insiders, in April, the Leading Group of the United Front Work in a county under the jurisdiction of Fuzhou, a prefecture-level city of the eastern province of Jiangxi, issued a confidential document to intensify “religious rectification work” against underground Catholic activities in the Diocese of Yujiang.
One of the four dioceses of the Archdiocese of Nanchang that roughly covers the territory of Jiangxi, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Yujiang unites believers from 20 counties in the east of the province, six of them under the jurisdiction of Fuzhou. Refusing to join the CPCA, some congregations there continue assembling underground, despite attempts by the authorities to make them be governed by the state. Therefore, the edict calls for increased investigations to ascertain the activities of Catholic conscientious objectors, further reducing their survival space, weakening their capabilities to hold religious activities, and intensifying control over key clergy members.
Soon after the document was issued, multiple underground Catholic meeting venues in the diocese were shut down. In mid-May, when officials raided one of them, they threatened to revoke social security benefits for its owner, who is in his 70s, unless he closed down the site. They also threatened to impose a 200,000 RMB (about $ 30,000) fine and arrest him if he assembles the congregation for Mass again.
To avoid the government’s persecution, believers started assembling early in the morning, at 5 a.m. Despite that, in late June, officials and police officers raided the venue during a Mass. The priest managed to avoid arrest as he escaped, the venue’s owner was taken to the police station where officers threatened to withhold his ID card and household registration documents as a means to force him to close the meeting venue. The owner had no choice but to stop hosting gatherings for the congregation.
In April, another meeting venue in the diocese was closed down, forcing believers to disperse into smaller groups for gatherings. The venue was built in 2017 at the cost of more than one million RMB (about $ 150,000) that had been raised by the congregation. In the past, Catholics from five townships used to attend Mass at this venue.
“Xi Jinping proclaimed on the news that there is religious freedom in China. That’s fake. It’s a lie. He just says it for foreigners to hear,” said one believer. “Praying and attending Mass is like waging guerrilla warfare; we have to hide, moving from place to place.”
In May, a Catholic church in the Diocese of Yujiang couldn’t escape closure by the local government, despite having disguised itself as an ancestral hall – a traditional Chinese temple dedicated to deceased family members.
Stakeouts at closed venues to prevent believers from returning
Catholics who refuse to join the CPCA continue to be persecuted all over China. In early June, two underground venues were raided and closed in Pingtan county under the administration of Fuzhou, the capital of the southeastern province of Fujian. Two more were shut down around the same time because they were “unlicensed,” violations of fire safety regulations were also cited as the grounds for closing one of them. The authorities threatened to demolish the venues and arrest believers if they didn’t stop holding gatherings.
To prevent believers from resuming assemblies, the county government dispatched over a dozen village committee personnel for stakeouts outside the venues. Officials take turns surveilling the premises each day and take photos regularly as proof that gatherings have not resumed, reporting the situation to their superiors. The stakeouts sometimes last as late as 9 p.m., to make sure that congregation members do not attempt to hold an evening Mass.
One of the village officials told Bitter Winter that they cannot stop the surveillance until further notice from the higher-ups in the county government. “Pressure from the top is being applied at each level. There’s nothing we can do about it,” he added helplessly. To prevent believers from entering one of the venues, officials even put glue into the lock cylinder.
The United Front Work Department in Baoding city of the northern province of Hebei raided a Catholic church that refuses to join CPCA. Believers were dispersed, tables and chairs were cleared out from the church. The congregation continues to meet in the empty church, regardless of the intimidations; only now, somebody always keeps watch outside to warn believers if the authorities are coming to raid the church again.