Freedom of Religious Beliefs as Seen in a Chinese Province
Editor¡¯s note: In recent years, the Chinese Government has been time and again accused, by those in the West who are either hostile towards the country or ignorant of its realities, of acting in violation of the right of its citizens to religious beliefs. There is the allegation that ¡°official respect for religious freedom in China has diminished.¡± To find out the truth, the China Society for Human Right Studies (CSHRS) organized a study tour of Hebei Province, north China, the very first of its kind since the society came into being ten years ago. The group, headed by Zhou Jue, president of the CSHRS, comprised some of the most prominent experts on human rights and on international laws. The study tour, from September 21 to 27, 2003, covered all the religions practiced in China-Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism, with Catholicism as the focus.
Believers of Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism, put together, number 2.5 million in Hebei Province, accounting for about four percent of the province¡¯s total population of 67 million. According to officials with the Hebei Provincial Bureau for Ethnic and Religious Affairs, the province has a large concentration of religious believers relative to other parts of China. There are 570,000 Muslims in the province, outnumbering those in any other province or municipality along the Chinese coast. Numbering one million, Catholics in Hebei account for one quarter of the total in the country.
A Predominantly Catholic Village
A Gothic church towers over the Donglu Village of Qingyuan County, about 20 kilometers to the southeast of Baoding City, to which the county belongs. The church is spacious enough for several thousand believers to gather at a time for religious activities. Local officials said that the church is the largest in north China. Of the 9,000 people living in the village, 7,000 are Catholics, meaning that in proportionate terms, the village probably has a larger concentration of Catholics than any other place in the country.
The church was built in the late 1880s and, up to the mid 1950s, the village, as well as other parts of the country, was tormented by consecutive wars and turmoil. In 1941, the church was reduced to ruins when invading Japanese troops set fire to it. ¡°When people had nowhere to worship, they had no religious freedom to speak of,¡± said Father John Su Changshan, 78, himself a native of Donglu.
Zhou Jue, president of the China Society for Human Rights Studies, is talking with an Imam.
Religious activities resumed in 1979, after China adopted the state policy of reform and opening up to the outside world. In March 1989, construction of a new church began at the site of the old burned by the Japanese. According to Father Su, the local government approved building of the new church after consultation with Catholics in the village, and allowed the church to use the land free of charge. Under Chinese laws, all land belongs to the state and organizations and individuals have to pay a fee for use of land.
Father Su acknowledged that the church gained ¡°great help¡± from the government in the construction, which was completed in 1992. Aside from a special allocation of 300,000 yuan (8.27 yuan against the U.S. dollar) for the project from the local government, ¡°we got a helping hand whenever difficulties occurred.¡± For instance, the construction team the church hired was not equipped to handle the dome. So the religious affairs authorities reported this to the Baoding mayor and the mayor lost no time to have two cranes help with the work, and the dome was hoisted to the right place in two days. Back at that time, one crane cost 200,000 yuan per day, but the government intervention saved the money for the church.
To anyone above prejudice, the new church could testify to official respect for religious freedom in China. Outside the village there is a vast expanse of pear and apple trees, 5,000 mu (15 mu in a hectare) in area which, like the church, was built with help from the local government.
According to Father Su, people in Donglu Village had hardly been able to make ends meet until the county authorities sent technicians to help them develop orchards for higher incomes. Families had their services for free and, moreover, the local government also helped villagers start factories. The CSHRS team found neat rows of brand new red brick housing buildings in the village. ¡°All families have built new homes in recent years,¡± Father Su said.
Had there been ¡°severe and systematical violations of freedom of religion and belief¡± in China as accused by some westerners, how could Donglu Village have such a magnificent cathedral? And how could the believers in the village thrive like this?
A Senior Bishop
In China, a handful of self-styled ¡°Catholics¡± have tried by various means to oppose the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) simply because the association upholds the principle of independence in running religious affairs and consecrating bishops and archbishops on their own. These people are lauded to the skies in the West, as ¡°heroes¡± or ¡°saints.¡± Meanwhile, those Chinese Catholics who support the CPCA are pictured as ¡°pagans,¡± allegedly for attempting to ¡°split¡± the Roman Catholic Church.
Who, after all, attempts to split the Roman Catholic Church? For an answer, the CSHRS team met with Bishop Matthew Pan Deshi of the Baoding Parish.
Now in his eighties, Bishop Pan attended the Baoding Divinity School at eleven and, since then, has devoted himself to Catholicism. The Baoding Parish was run by French missionaries at the time, and Bishop Pan still remembers that the national flag of France was displayed in every church there. ¡°Since the national flag of a foreign country could be displayed in churches on Chinese soil, what¡¯s wrong with us Chinese Catholics for being patriotic?¡± he asked.
¡°The hard fact is that before new China was founded in 1949, Catholicism in China was divided,¡± he said. According to the bishop, Italian missionaries controlled affairs of the Roman Catholic Church in Shanxi Province. Such affairs in Inner Mongolia were under the control by missionaries from Belgium, and in Hebei and other areas at either side of the Beijing-Hankou Railway as well as in Sichuan Province, by French missionaries. ¡°It is not accidental that the division coincided with the spheres of influence carved out in China by imperialist powers,¡± he said.
Bishop Pan was studying at the Beijing Catholic Theological Seminary when the city was liberated in early 1949. ¡°We knew nothing about what had happened outside the seminary,¡± he recalled. ¡°One day, a man from Yugoslavia was introduced to us by the French president of the seminary, who began to lecture us on how to do ¡®missionary work¡¯ behind the ¡®iron curtain.¡¯ The man was said to have posed as a doctor and done such work in the (former) Soviet Union for 20 years.¡±
The Hebei Catholic Theological Seminary.
For well over two weeks, Pan and fellow students were shut in the school for lectures given by persons like the Yugoslavian. ¡°After we were allowed out, we saw for the first time that red flags fluttered everywhere and everything had changed,¡± he said. ¡°Portraits of Chairman Mao (Zedong) were put up, the people¡¯s own government had been set up, yet the seminary authorities kept us in dark of all this but lectured us on how to do ¡®missionary work¡¯ behind the ¡®iron curtain¡¯! This really made me and many of my schoolmates furious.¡±
Numerous facts show that ever since the People¡¯s Republic of China was founded, the Vatican has forbidden the Catholics in China to participate in every patriotic activities or cooperate with the government. Some of its representatives even got involved in a series of schemes to subvert the new Chinese government and split China.
For all these years China has been accused of being ¡°intolerant¡± towards religions. But one should ask what is the true fact-China led by the Communist Party being ¡°intolerant¡± towards the Roman Catholic Church, or the Vatican intolerant towards China and Chinese Catholics who love their country and accept the leadership of the Communist Party over the country? It is clear that it is the Vatican that is intolerant towards the Communist Party now leading China and the Catholics who obey its leadership, and particularly intolerant of their freedom to run the church independently. Yet it seems the Vatican¡¯s intolerance is taken for granted in the west.
Far back in the early 1950s, Pan was already working as a Sacerdos of a church in Baoding and, in the early 1990s, was consecrated as bishop of the Baoding Parish by the Chinese Catholic Bishops¡¯ College. On Vatican¡¯s website, however, the name of the bishop for China¡¯s Baoding Parish remains vacant even though it has been well over a decade since the vacancy was filled. Such intolerance of a pious Catholic clergyman is appalling.
It is intolerance on the part of the Vatican towards Bishop Pan and other patriotic Catholics in China that prompts those ¡°loyal subjects of the Holy See¡± to attack the Chinese Government and the CPCA, in a vain attempt to split Chinese Catholics and the country itself. In China, it is those self-styled ¡°Catholics¡± who engage in illegal activities, not the patriotic Catholics, that are trying to split the religion. ¡°Patriotism does in no way run opposed to support for our religious belief,¡± said Bishop Pan. ¡°As a Chinese citizen, I am duty-bound to abide by Chinese laws. But in terms of faith, I believe in the same Lord with the Vatican.¡± Quoting the Preamble of the Catholic Code, he said, in the condition that the Vatican does not recognize the People¡¯s Republic of China and has no diplomatic relations with it, the Chinese Catholic Church cannot but be independent of the Vatican.
A Catholic Theological Seminary
While in Hebei Province, the CSHRS team found that a contingent of younger priests is coming to the fore to succeed people like Father Su Changshan and Bishop Pan Deshi who are in advanced ages. The Hebei Catholic Theological Seminary has graduated 450 students since it was set up in 1984. Father John Gong Zhanping, 36, is the seminary¡¯s executive vice-president. He said that 371 of the graduates have been consecrated. ¡°Ours is the first and largest of its kind started in the province ever since Catholicism was brought into China 400 years ago,¡± Father Gong said.
The seminary, with a Gothic church and two four-story classroom building wings along with a library, a computer room and students¡¯ dormitories, lies in the university area on the outskirts of Shijiazhuang, capital city of Hebei Province. Occupying 5.53 hectares, it practices a schooling of six years, two years for philosophy and four years for theology. ¡°The seminary is purely for religious education, independent of China¡¯s national education system,¡± Father Gong said. ¡°Dialectical materialism, the philosophical basis of Marxism, is not taught here. The Chinese Communist Youth League does not operate in the seminary.¡± Ninety-two students are currently studying at the seminary. Hebei Province has eight parishes, of which six run divinity schools. Students of the seminary are chosen from among graduates of the divinity schools. Most teachers of the seminary are in their mid-30s. Two of them, Father John Niu Huanqi and Father John Fei Baiyin, went to the United States to continue their theological studies after graduation from the seminary. ¡°We stayed in the United States for six years, and decided to come back to serve God in China,¡± Father Niu said.
According to Niu, there was indeed a ¡°faultage of human resources¡± in the Catholic Church due to the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), as in other sectors in the country. ¡°So you see very few clergymen in their 40s and 50s,¡± he explained. ¡°But now the younger generation is coming up fast. In the Xianxian Parish where I belong, 98 percent of the fathers are young men under 35 years of age.¡± Of the more than 40 Fathers in the Handan Parish, only two are the old generation, who are both over 86. ¡°Now it is up to our generation to evangelize here,¡± said Father Peter Liu Xiuhua, 36, also a graduate of the Hebei Catholic Theological Seminary,
There are also provincial schools for religious education for Buddhism, Taoism, Islam and Protestantism. The Hebei Buddhist School now has more than 80 students from all over China. Abbot Jing Hui of Bolin Temple in the province said that he has started Buddhist shrines in France. ¡°It is quite popular,¡± said the monk, who doubles as vice-chairman of the Chinese Association of Buddhism. The eminent monk has since 1994 visited France seven times for preaching. He said that he has chosen his student Ming Hai, a graduate from the Philosophy Department of the prestigious Beijing University and also a devoted Buddhist, as his successor.
All the religious organizations in the province have their own publications, including two for worldwide circulation -Dhyana of Buddhism and True Believers of Catholicism. Their websites are also very active. Bible published in China is available to all, believers or not believers. It consists of both the old and new Testaments.
Government Administration and Services
In a country where the vast majority of the people do not believe in a religion, said leaders of religious organizations in Hebei Province, freedom of their beliefs would be unthinkable without government administration and services.
In early September, well over 10,000 believers gathered at Bolin Temple for a ceremony to inaugurate a newly built shrine called the ¡°Ten Thousand Buddha Hall¡±. ¡°The ceremony went without a hitch,¡± said Monk Ming Hai, who presided over the ceremony. ¡°Three fire engines stood by as a precaution. A police squad came to help us ensure order. We were really grateful for what they did, and so were those worshippers. We had to count on the government to properly handle so huge a crowd.¡±
Zhang Xing has been working with the Hebei Provincial Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau for more than 20 years, since she graduated in 1982 from the Philosophy Department of Hebei University. She admitted that a lot of bad things did happen during the chaotic Cultural Revolution to the entire Chinese people including those with religious beliefs. But, she insisted, shortly after the Cultural Revolution ended, the Chinese Government began to set things right. Numerous ¡°religious professionals¡±-priests, nuns, monks, imams, etc.-had been forced to give up their work. ¡°The first thing we did was to find them and persuade them to go back and restore the religious activities,¡± Zhang said. ¡°Then we saw to it that religious sites illegally occupied during the Cultural Revolution would be returned to the religious organizations.¡±
The Catholic cathedral at Donglu Village, Qingyuan County.
Easier said than done. The residence for the bishop of the Handan Parish, for example, had been turned into a residential compound for several dozen families during the Cultural Revolution and it was difficult to have them relocated. After much consulting with leaders of several government departments and the Parish, the Handan City Government gave the Parish 1.33 hectares of land for the building of a new residence. ¡°In China,¡± said Zhang Xing, ¡°government authorities in charge of religious affairs have the task of offering services to create the kind of environment in which citizens¡¯ right to religious beliefs is effectively guaranteed in accordance with the law.¡±
Officials described government administration and services as the ¡°two sides of the same coin,¡± both being designed to help ensure unification of the motherland and unity of the various ethnic groups and to promote the country¡¯s economic development and social stability. On September 1, 2003, the Hebei Provincial Regulations Concerning the Handling of Religious Affairs became effective. According to Zhang Keyun, an official with the bureau, these regulations had been revised 26 times on the basis of suggestions from religious leaders and believers and law experts and public hearings were given before they were submitted to the Hebei Provincial People¡¯s Congress for examination and approval. ¡°The process was fully democratic,¡± he said.
Of the 59 articles in ten chapters, one third or 19 articles are about guaranteeing the legitimate rights of the religious circles and believers. Many religious leaders feel the proportion of these protective clauses demonstrate the respect for religious freedom and belief.
All the five religions have representatives at the people¡¯s congress and committee of the Chinese People¡¯s Political Consultative Conference at each level from the province, city to county. Imam Zhang Zicheng of Handan, vice-chairman of the Hebei Provincial Islamic Association, said, ¡°Now the laws and decrees adopted have been formed through heeding opinions from grassroots and therefore are popular. We are willing to follow these laws and decrees.¡±
The government honestly implements the policies of freedom of religious beliefs and regards the believers as an active force in building socialism with Chinese characteristics. On their part, the religious circles are of one heart and mind with the government, earnestly upholding social stability and firmly opposing the cults. During the epidemic of SARS-severe acute respiratory syndrome-or other disasters, they would all donate money and pray for the nation. As Abbot Hui Jing put it, ¡°religious believers in China share the weal and woe of the entire Chinese people, and the government and religious circles take each other with all sincerity.¡±
¡°We have the best say as to whether or not we enjoy the freedom of religious beliefs in China,¡± said Wang Shuhua, an Islamite in Handan. ¡°We have seen consecutive wars breaking out over religious disputes in many parts of the world, yet we in China have remained in peace. This is just because we have enjoyed freedom of religious beliefs in its true sense.¡±