Chinese Clergy, Officials Locked in Property Dispute

Catholic priests and police in a northern Chinese city are locked in a standoff. Some 50 priests and nuns say the local government gave their property to a developer and that construction workers beat them. The dispute comes as ties between Beijing and the Vatican have shown signs of progress.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Catholic priests and police have been in a standoff for almost a week in the north of China. Some 50 priests and nuns say the local government gave their property to a developer and that construction workers beat them. The dispute comes as ties between Beijing and the Vatican have shown signs of progress. From Beijing, here's NPR's Anthony Kuhn.

ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

The property in question is an empty and unheated building in the northern port city of Tianjin. The priests and nuns were prepared to spend a cold, grim Christmas there with plans to build a nativity scene to cheer themselves up. After the government gave the property to a local developer, the priests entered into negotiations with city authorities. Speaking on his mobile phone from the house, Father Wu Liqiang said that those negotiations had yielded some results.

Father WU LIQIANG (Catholic Priest): (Through Translator) Today's development is that they granted our request to leave a working group of a dozen or so people in the house while the rest return home. We see this as an initial response, but as for resolving the property issue and getting back our church's holdings, we're not so optimistic.

KUHN: Father Wu said all but a dozen priests had just boarded a bus to return home to central Shaanxi province. He explained that Catholics from Shaanxi bought the house as an investment back in 1911. After coming to power in 1949, the Communists seized all church property. They returned some of it during the reform era beginning in 1979, but not this particular house. The priests and nuns had come to reclaim the property when several construction workers showed up on the afternoon of December 16th, Father Wu recalls.

Father WU: (Through Translator) Several of our brothers had gone out to buy a stove and these workers threw the stove out on the street. The two sides got into a standoff and started fighting.

KUHN: Wu said several dozen men armed with bricks, iron rods and wooden poles beat the priests, injuring seven or eight of them. Police stopped the attack and hauled the attackers and their victims to the police station for questioning and only then took the injured to the hospital. Father Wu said that the police let them enter and exit the building freely but the police cars that surround the building had made the priests nervous. Tianjin government officials were not immediately available for comment.

The priests were members of China's government-run Catholic church. Joseph Kung of the Connecticut-based Cardinal Kung Foundation says that means there is little the Vatican can do on the priests' behalf.

Mr. JOSEPH KUNG (Cardinal Kung Foundation): The official church has a constitution declaring their independence from the pope. Therefore, strictly speaking, officially speaking, they are not Roman Catholic.

KUHN: Both the Vatican and Beijing have recently expressed a willingness to normalize the diplomatic relations they broke off in 1951. Beijing's precondition is that the Vatican sever ties with Taiwan, which the Vatican has indicated it may do. But religious freedom issues could derail the rapprochement. Last month the Vatican complained about the beating of 16 Franciscan nuns in the city of Xian. The nuns were trying to protect a diocesan school from developers who wanted to tear it down. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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