China's Divided Catholics Seek Reconciliation

  • China's Catholics have traditionally been divided into two churches. One, the "open" or government-sanctioned church, and the "underground," or Vatican-sanctioned church. Here, clergy from the government-sanctioned church hold a procession to the Sheshan basilica on the outskirts of Shanghai.
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    China's Catholics have traditionally been divided into two churches. One, the "open" or government-sanctioned church, and the "underground," or Vatican-sanctioned church. Here, clergy from the government-sanctioned church hold a procession to the Sheshan basilica on the outskirts of Shanghai.
    Louisa Lim/NPR
  • The procession takes place on May 24, the day that Pope Benedict XVI designated as the international day of prayer for China. But the clergy in China's "open," or official, church cut ties to the Vatican in 1951.
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    The procession takes place on May 24, the day that Pope Benedict XVI designated as the international day of prayer for China. But the clergy in China's "open," or official, church cut ties to the Vatican in 1951.
    Louisa Lim/NPR
  • Many of the underground Catholics refuse to enter the government-sanctioned church, and hold their own services outside the basilica at the Marian shrine. In the past, security forces have stopped Catholics from worshipping here on sensitive days, such as this one.
    Hide caption
    Many of the underground Catholics refuse to enter the government-sanctioned church, and hold their own services outside the basilica at the Marian shrine. In the past, security forces have stopped Catholics from worshipping here on sensitive days, such as this one.
    Louisa Lim/NPR
  • Priests in the government-sanctioned church are all members of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which Pope Benedict XVI has criticized as "incompatible" with Catholic doctrine.
    Hide caption
    Priests in the government-sanctioned church are all members of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which Pope Benedict XVI has criticized as "incompatible" with Catholic doctrine.
    Louisa Lim/NPR
  • Catholics worship inside the government-sanctioned church on the international day of prayer. For decades, China's more than 12 million Catholics have been bitterly divided.
    Hide caption
    Catholics worship inside the government-sanctioned church on the international day of prayer. For decades, China's more than 12 million Catholics have been bitterly divided.
    Louisa Lim/NPR
  • Anthony Liu Bainian has been called "China's pope," and is vice chairman of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association — a quasi-governmental organization that controls the Catholic church in China. He told NPR he believes he was chosen by God, but he is not recognized by the Vatican.
    Hide caption
    Anthony Liu Bainian has been called "China's pope," and is vice chairman of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association — a quasi-governmental organization that controls the Catholic church in China. He told NPR he believes he was chosen by God, but he is not recognized by the Vatican.
    Louisa Lim/NPR
  • At Xikai Cathedral in Tianjin, 85 miles southeast of Beijing, the Rev. Zhang Liang says a letter issued by Pope Benedict XVI to Chinese Catholics three years ago was a turning point in the move toward reconciliation.
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    At Xikai Cathedral in Tianjin, 85 miles southeast of Beijing, the Rev. Zhang Liang says a letter issued by Pope Benedict XVI to Chinese Catholics three years ago was a turning point in the move toward reconciliation.
    Louisa Lim/NPR
  • "Pope Benedict issued a papal letter, and now we in Tianjin have reconciled with each other," Zhang says. Although the priest is a member of the government-sanctioned church, he has a framed certificate from the pope.
    Hide caption
    "Pope Benedict issued a papal letter, and now we in Tianjin have reconciled with each other," Zhang says. Although the priest is a member of the government-sanctioned church, he has a framed certificate from the pope.
    Louisa Lim/NPR
  • Melchior Shi Hongzhen, 83, a coadjutor bishop, is recognized by the Vatican but not by Beijing. He lives on the outskirts of Tianjin under a kind of house arrest, and has to ask permission from the police if he wants to travel elsewhere.
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    Melchior Shi Hongzhen, 83, a coadjutor bishop, is recognized by the Vatican but not by Beijing. He lives on the outskirts of Tianjin under a kind of house arrest, and has to ask permission from the police if he wants to travel elsewhere.
    Louisa Lim/NPR
  • Melchior Shi's church is a far cry from the splendor of Tianjin cathedral. It's located beside a trash-filled ditch along a busy highway. The elderly clergyman says he supports the steps toward reconciliation, but will not join the official Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.
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    Melchior Shi's church is a far cry from the splendor of Tianjin cathedral. It's located beside a trash-filled ditch along a busy highway. The elderly clergyman says he supports the steps toward reconciliation, but will not join the official Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.
    Louisa Lim/NPR

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For decades, China's Catholics — estimated at more than 12 million — have been bitterly divided. Some worship in China's government-sanctioned Catholic churches, others in "underground" churches loyal to the Vatican.

But three years ago, Pope Benedict XVI sent a letter to Chinese Catholics — the first from a pope in more than a half-century — urging reconciliation. Yet China's Catholics have struggled to follow these instructions.

Early morning in Sheshan, on the outskirts of Shanghai, Catholics kneel on the ground in front of the pilgrimage shrine to the Virgin Mary, known as the Marian shrine. A cacophony of prayer rises as different groups of pilgrims conduct their services, singing hymns of praise almost loud enough to drown each other out.

The Rev. Zhang Liang of the government-sanctioned church

Although the Rev. Zhang Liang of Tianjin, China, is a member of the government-sanctioned church, he has a framed certificate from Pope Benedict XVI. "Pope Benedict issued a papal letter, and now we in Tianjin have reconciled with each other," he says. Louisa Lim/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Louisa Lim/NPR

Many of these groups of believers refuse to enter the government-sanctioned church nearby. They are part of the "underground" church, even though on this day they are worshipping openly and unimpeded. Some of these believers refuse to take Holy Communion from Beijing's officially appointed bishops, and instead follow bishops chosen by the Vatican.

On this day, members of the government-sanctioned church are also out in force, holding an official procession up the hill at the Sheshan basilica, a cavernous, red-brick building with stained-glass windows, which was built in 1935.

As choirs of white-robed priests sing hymns to the Virgin Mary, priests carry a statue of Mary out of the church, incense wafting over it, while nuns shower it with flower petals.

The clergy in this procession belong to China's official Catholic church, sometimes known as the open church. In a bid to assert authority over China's Catholics, Beijing cut ties with the Vatican in 1951 and began the practice of ordaining its own bishops, some without the approval of the pope.

These parallel acts of worship take place side by side on May 24, which Pope Benedict XVI has designated as the international day of prayer for China. It's a measure of what it means to be a Catholic in China that in the past this pilgrimage spot has been the subject of intense security by police and security forces, sometimes stopping pilgrims from entering.

This year, however, there is little overt security, signaling a thaw. And that is echoed in some parts of China, where government-sanctioned believers and underground communities are taking steps to bridge that divide.

One Diocese Closes Divide

In Tianjin, 85 miles southeast of Beijing, the Rev. Zhang Liang wears purple robes and celebrates Mass inside an imposing domed cathedral, a state-sanctioned church whose pews are packed with worshippers on a weekday morning. He says the papal letter three years ago was a turning point.

"In the past, [the] Tianjin diocese was divided into above-ground and underground Catholics," he explains. "The two factions argued, and it was awkward when they met. But Pope Benedict XVI issued a papal letter, and now we in Tianjin have reconciled with each other."

Map Showing Tianjin

During Mass, all priests in Tianjin publicly name Stephen Li Side as their bishop; he is a Vatican-appointed bishop unrecognized by Beijing. But in 2008, after the papal letter, the underground bishop himself urged his flock to worship in the state-sanctioned church.

Zhang believes Chinese Catholics should take responsibility for healing the divisions themselves, instead of blaming the government.

"Why do you blame the government? It's like blaming the sun for not shining on you. If you take one step forward, there's the sunshine," he says. "It's like saying, 'Will the government let me open this door or not?' " Zhang says. "The government doesn't care whether you open the door. You just think they care. Everyone is so busy prejudging, they don't dare do anything."

Still, Some Priests Pay Heavy Price

Just 25 miles away in the suburbs of Tianjin, another priest labors in very different circumstances. The small makeshift church where 83-year-old Melchior Shi Hongzhen has held Mass for the past 20 years sits beside a trash-filled ditch, accompanied by the roar of traffic from a busy highway.

This is a place of exile for Shi, a coadjutor bishop — a rank similar to an auxiliary bishop — recognized by the Vatican in 1982 but not by the Chinese government.

He has paid a heavy price for belonging to the underground church, including 28 years working in a factory at the time of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and early '70s, when religion was outlawed. Other underground bishops have suffered, too, spending years, even decades in prison or under house arrest.

Slightly deaf but cheerful, Shi spends his days reading in his book-filled study. He says he supports the steps toward reconciliation, but he will not join the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, a quasi-governmental organization that controls the Catholic church in China.

"The patriotic association is an organization of the country, like the Communist Party. You are free to join or not. I didn't. What I've been doing doesn't harm the country in any way. I just give Mass, baptism and the last rites. That's all," Shi says.

Despite the recent moves toward reconciliation in Tianjin, Shi's personal situation hasn't changed. He is under a kind of house arrest, effectively a prisoner in his compound. Believers can come and worship with him, but Catholic clergy reportedly cannot. If he wants to leave, he has to ask the police for permission — even, sources say, to administer the last rites.

Despite the efforts of reconciliation, China's government still fears the influence of the Vatican, and this frail old man is evidently viewed as a threat. He is not keen to talk about the politics of the church in China, but it's notable that he praises Thomas More, the 16th-century Catholic martyr who was tried and executed for treason for denying that Henry VIII was the supreme head of the church in England.

"You know why Thomas More was sentenced to death?" Shi asks. "Because of his Catholic faith. And he asked the executioner to thank the king for allowing him to be killed by decapitation, instead of being hanged. How amazing to have such love for Catholicism."

The Rev. Michel Marcil has visited China more than 30 times since the 1980s

The Rev. Michel Marcil has visited China more than 30 times since the 1980s and helped government-sanctioned bishops secretly gain approval from the Vatican. "We were kind of messengers," he says. Louisa Lim/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Louisa Lim/NPR

Secret Papal Approval For Beijing's Priests

But even before the papal letter, things had been quietly changing for China's Catholics. A reconciliation of sorts has been going on unnoticed, as the vast majority of Beijing's patriotic bishops have secretly contacted the Vatican and received Rome's approval.

That was done through emissaries such as the Rev. Michel Marcil. Now in charge of the U.S. Catholic China Bureau, a church-sponsored initiative to foster contacts in China, he has traveled to China more than 30 times since the early 1980s.

"We were meeting priests and bishops who had been consecrated bishop without the permission of Rome," he says. "They were telling us [that] this kind of condemnation by Rome was the greatest pain they had in all of that. It's really painful. Some of them would say, 'I'd like to write to the pope; would you give a letter?' So this is what a lot of us were doing; we were kind of messengers."

Now, Rome has recognized 90 percent of Beijing's open bishops. And since the papal letter, despite the lack of any formal ties, all seven candidates picked by China to become new bishops have also been acceptable to Rome.

"This practice is new," Marcil says. "Only the test of time will tell if this is a new gentlemen's agreement between the Vatican and China's Communist Party. It is not the result of negotiations, but the fruit of having negotiated together and understood better [each other's] positions."

It's significant, too, that despite the lack of any official ties, Pope Benedict's letter was sent to the Chinese government before being issued to the faithful.

Sister Janet Carroll is a Maryknoll nun who has worked with Chinese Catholics for many years.

"There was a very careful consideration on the part of the Vatican, the Holy See, to make the letter available to the authorities in China, letting them know it would be disseminated among the faithful," she says.

"That really was a gesture among the Holy See and Vatican officials to relate to the Chinese government and to let them know that they weren't trying to do any rousing up of the faithful against their own country," she adds.

Anthony Liu Bainian has been called "China's pope" and heads China's Patriotic Association i i

Anthony Liu Bainian has been called "China's pope" and heads China's Patriotic Catholic Association -- a quasi-governmental organization that controls the Chinese Catholic church. He believes he was chosen by God, even though he's not recognized by the Vatican. Louisa Lim/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Louisa Lim/NPR
Anthony Liu Bainian has been called "China's pope" and heads China's Patriotic Association

Anthony Liu Bainian has been called "China's pope" and heads China's Patriotic Catholic Association -- a quasi-governmental organization that controls the Chinese Catholic church. He believes he was chosen by God, even though he's not recognized by the Vatican.

Louisa Lim/NPR

'Ball Is In The Vatican's Court'

All agree that the Vatican and China are inching closer — even the man some see as the Vatican's nemesis. Anthony Liu Bainian has been called China's pope. A former seminarian, this layman is vice chairman of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association — an organization that Benedict described as "incompatible" with Catholic doctrine in his papal letter.

But Liu sees his post in lofty terms, saying he believes he was chosen by God.

"The Lord needed a bridge between the church in China and those holding political power," he says. "And I'm a tool sent by the Lord to be that bridge."

He blames the Vatican for splitting China's church. China's position is that the Vatican must cut its diplomatic ties with Taiwan and establish relations with China. He says it should also avoid interfering with China's internal affairs, including its religious decisions.

His view is that the ball is in the Vatican's court.

"China is getting stronger and richer, and the Vatican can't get away from politics. The Vatican is isolated over China's diplomatic recognition," Liu says.

"The problem of ordination of bishops doesn't stem from the Chinese church. If there are no diplomatic ties and we want to choose bishops, how could we report back to the Vatican? If you want to solve the problem, you should have already established diplomatic ties," he says.

When asked why priests like Melchior Shi Hongzhen remain under house arrest and other underground bishops remain in detention for years, Liu replies, "The country's laws very clearly say that no matter which faith or organization it is, you need to register with the government. ... I'm not the public procurator. But we believe the government deals with these cases according to the law."

Obstacles On Road To Reconciliation

Politics aside, reconciliation is easier said than done. In Tianjin, one believer in the underground church criticized the moves being made by the divided communities to edge closer together as empty words, calling them "cheating." Her understanding of the deal among Tianjin Catholics was that the clergy should quit the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which no one has yet done.

There is great confusion about what the pope's letter actually intended. Some senior clerics, including the influential Cardinal Joseph Zen in Hong Kong, have released their own interpretations of the letter. Others mention financial obstacles to reconciliation, particularly problems over the restitution of church property confiscated under communist rule.

In Hebei province, a stronghold of the underground church, an underground nun who didn't want to give her name expressed her doubts.

"I'm not sure whether the pope understands the situation of underground church people like us. If we all suddenly came out into the open, then it would be out of control. It would cause chaos for the church," she says. "If you don't know what reconciliation means, then it's better not to reconcile."

Yet the lines between the underground and open churches are blurring. And China's divided Catholics are groping toward reconciliation, even if that process is slow and painful.

Secret Jails Used To Enforce China's 'Hidden Rules'

A man walks through a former black jail i i

A man walks through a Beijing building formerly used as a secret detention center in 2009. In these "black jails," Chinese citizens are held, forcibly restrained and sometimes beaten to prevent them from lodging formal complaints with the central government. Elizabeth Dalziel/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Elizabeth Dalziel/AP
A man walks through a former black jail

A man walks through a Beijing building formerly used as a secret detention center in 2009. In these "black jails," Chinese citizens are held, forcibly restrained and sometimes beaten to prevent them from lodging formal complaints with the central government.

Elizabeth Dalziel/AP

First of a two-part series

If you consider that as recently as a generation ago, China did not have any trial lawyers or a criminal law, the country has come a long way in establishing a legal system.

But there are many instances in which the laws on the books don't have much effect, and society runs according to a completely different set of unwritten rules. Some Chinese call these "hidden rules."

An example of how these hidden rules work can be found just a couple minutes' walk from one of Beijing's busiest downtown intersections.

There sits a small hotel run by the government of South China's Guangxi province. Provincial officials occasionally use the hotel to secretly detain people who come to the capital to complain about local government abuses. They are kept under a sort of house arrest until they can be shipped home.

China has denied the existence of "black jails" to the United Nations' human rights commission, but almost anyone petitioning the government can show you one.

Liu Xinyu's Story

Inside the Beijing hotel, a human rights activist explains, is a woman named Liu Xinyu, who has come to the capital to complain that a developer bulldozed her ancestral home without paying her a fair price.

In the hall outside her room, Liu stands next to two sullen and bewildered-looking young women Liu says were hired to guard her — one short and plump, the other tall and skinny.

Petitioner Liu Xinyu stands outside a Beijing hotel where she was recently detained. i i

Petitioner Liu Xinyu stands outside a Beijing hotel where she was recently detained by provincial officials. The hotel is run by the Guangxi provincial government's liaison office in Beijing. Unlike some secret detention facilities, known in China as "black jails," there are no iron bars on the hotel's doors or windows, but Liu says two female guards were hired to monitor her around the clock. Anthony Kuhn/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Anthony Kuhn/NPR
Petitioner Liu Xinyu stands outside a Beijing hotel where she was recently detained.

Petitioner Liu Xinyu stands outside a Beijing hotel where she was recently detained by provincial officials. The hotel is run by the Guangxi provincial government's liaison office in Beijing. Unlike some secret detention facilities, known in China as "black jails," there are no iron bars on the hotel's doors or windows, but Liu says two female guards were hired to monitor her around the clock.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR

Liu ignores them and goes into her room to talk in private. "I was brought here by people sent by the provincial government to stop me from petitioning," she explains, seated on the bed, wearing a leopard-spotted T-shirt and black tights.

"I haven't exactly been detained here, but I'm not free, and they won't let me leave," she says nervously.

The officials have told Liu that they are just there to protect her. But when she makes her way to the door, a middle-aged official in the hallway objects.

"You'd best leave this matter to us," he says. He dodges the microphone and refuses to answer questions. "China is different," he insists. "We have our regulations here."

Liu makes it to the street, heading for a drug store, with the official trailing not far behind. Liu eventually returns to the hotel, clinging to hope that the government will help her.

Liu's hotel is a minimum-security facility. There are other makeshift detention facilities in places like rented farmyards and guesthouses that are better guarded.

A Kind Of Cottage Industry

Although Chinese law gives citizens the right to petition the government to redress their grievances, petitioners say the government treats them like outlaws. And they say police are often complicit in the black jails' operation.

Zhao Fusheng, who is from Sichuan province, says he was detained in his provincial government's liaison office when he came to Beijing to file a petition. He says it was impossible to tell that it was a black jail from the outside.

"Once the provincial liaison officials get a hold of you, they put you in their basement," Zhao says. "Above the basement is a storefront. A door in the storefront opens, they throw you inside, and you're behind a layer of guards. If you disobey, they beat you."

Zhao says black jails have become a kind of cottage industry in Beijing.

"The provincial liaison offices pay the black jail operators the equivalent of $36 per detainee per day. Of that, about $15 goes to hire a guard, another $15 for food, and the rest for accommodations," Zhao says.

Joshua Rosenzweig, Hong Kong research manager for the human rights group the Dui Hua Foundation, says that while the central government wants citizens to inform on corrupt officials, it also expects local officials to maintain order and keep petitioners out of the capital.

"If you have petitioners from your area flocking to Beijing," Rosenzweig says, "it's a sign that you're not doing your job very well at the local level. And therefore, as a local official, you're going to do everything you can to stop those people from making you look bad."

Many local governments also maintain informal detention centers. Petitioner Jin Hanyan, from central Hubei province, says she accused her county's Communist Party secretary of corruption. For this, she says, she was sent to a "study class" in an abandoned factory. Of course, she says, no studying actually went on in there.

"In the mornings, they'd yell to wake us up," Jin says. "They'd make us do calisthenics and pull weeds. If you didn't obey, they'd beat you to within an inch of your life and withhold medical treatment if you got sick. They said the county party secretary told them it was not illegal to beat us to death."

Following that interview, word comes that Jin has been forcibly detained in a mental institution by her local government.

'Hidden Rules'

Beijing-based journalist Wu Si says the black jails are an expression of the phenomenon he explored in his 2002 book Hidden Rules. Government censors banned the book, but society now widely uses the term to describe the way things really work in China today.

"There have been many of these kinds of places, both in China's history and in the present day," Wu says. "They're an expression of officials' power to legally harm citizens. I call them 'gray jails.' They're neither formal jails, nor something that is entirely illegal. They're an oddity that exists in a sort of gray area."

Wu says this is the hidden rule that makes all the others stick: Officials have the power to punish citizens more or less at will, either for challenging their authority, or just to extort money out of them.

China is certainly not the only society with hidden rules. Nor is it the only society in which the rule of law is often a mere fig leaf for the rule of man. But China's hidden rules are especially elaborate. They are also in glaring conflict with the country's laws and with the Confucian virtues that centuries of Chinese governments have espoused.

"The formal rules used to say that county officials should act like people's parents," Wu says. "In fact, they acted like masters and lorded it over the common people. Those beneath them had to show deference, kowtow before them, and offer them all sorts of goods and favors."

The Root Of The Problem

Some time after NPR's interview with Liu Xinyu at the Beijing hotel, local human rights activists freed her.

Standing outside, Liu says she now sees her former captors as pathetic.

"If the local government would just try to resolve our problems for us, then we wouldn't have to petition the higher authorities," Liu says. "There was a time when we trusted the government to resolve our problems. But they didn't respond with sincerity."

The Dui Hua Foundation's Rosenzweig points out that local officials could strike at the root of the problem by resolving the petitioners' problems. But unfortunately, that's not the way the hidden rules work, and for that reason, they devote their energies to silencing the petitioners.

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