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The dialog with the Vatican, the fate of Bishop Shao Zhumin, human rights. Highly topical issues that focus international attention on China. On these and other topics in Terris interviewed Father Bernardo Cervellera, director of Asianews.

Next Friday will be the tenth anniversary of the publication of the Letter of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to Chinese Catholics. What is their current condition?

“At the time of Pope Benedict XVI, the Church in China was very reconciled, in fact the letter was not sent to the official Catholics or to those underground, but to all because the majority of bishops, also official, were reconciled with Rome. There was a very clear sense of unity and some of the things to do were very clear: reconciliation between the communities and ask to the political authority that minimum of religious freedom which includes the appointment of bishops and the refrain from actions against the faith, even if one may be forced to belong to the Patriotic Association (the official Church, which counts sixty bishops, supported by the government but incompatible with Catholic doctrine, editor’s note). After 10 years we can say that due to the manipulations of the party or of its branches, as the same Patriotic Association, the Church is more divided”.


“Because with the Petrine ministry of Pope Francis, started an attempt of dialog, which led the Vatican to respect China, and therefore not to proceed to ordinations if not agreed and not to take rush actions towards the government while the State did not refrain from continuing to carry out acts that have the consequence of confusing the minds of the faithful, as illicit ordinations of bishops that were not agreed with the Holy Seat or agreed ordinations, and therefore lawful, but flanked by force, with the power of police, by illicit bishops, excommunicated, in order to make things from the point of view of faith, ambiguous, confused. In addition, there have been arrests of bishops, assassinations of priests and priests interned in concentration camps and therefore the situation is much more confused with a church much more divided, because in front of this situation everyone tried to affirm the faith from his own position”.

The consequences?

“On the one hand, many underground Catholics do not want any more to work with official bishops who are sometimes opportunists and work too much for the government rather than for the Church. On the other hand, official bishops want to reject the underground Church as a relic of the past because now, they say, in China there is freedom and you can do whatever you want. In reality, there is no religious freedom: the underground bishops and priests have a mere freedom of worship but they are under control, their movements are followed, as well as those of the faithful; there are cameras in the parishes, in the offices, in the neighbouring streets. It seems that China somehow increasingly feel religion as a threat”.

The Holy Seat has expressed concern for the fate of Mons. Shao Zhumin.

“The Bishop of Wenzhou was arrested the last time on 18 May. He was invited in the Office of Religious Affairs and then he disappeared. For more than a month is in the hands of the police. The faithful think that they are trying to brainwash him to force him to join the Patriotic Church. The big problem is that nobody knows where he is. Since in the past some bishops who had disappeared, reappeared corpses, the issue is very worrying. Also the mother (ninety years old, editor’s note) of Mons. Zhumin launched an appeal for his release. The fact is that we are talking about the Bishop of a community that belongs for the 70% to the underground Church and that the authorities therefore want to penalise in an absolute manner”.

But will the dialog between Holy Seat and China have a positive outcome?

“I do not belong to the party of the optimistic that already one year ago were saying that everything was ready, then the agreements, first in October, then in November, then in December… but nothing happened. Let us say that we have started a very uneven path because the Communist Party absolutely does not want to change anything in its policy on the religions and the main problem concerns the appointment of bishops, if the final say must be of the Pope or of the government. We are discussing on this, probably there will be an agreement, but the fear of many Catholics is that the Vatican, in order to keep a relationship with China, is prepared to accept everything and for this reason Chinese faithful are in alert”.

The West seems to be more interested in the economic relations with the Chinese giant than in the respect of human rights. What do you think of the release of the Nobel Prize Liu Xiaobo?

“I think it is a way to wash their hands, because Liu is imprisoned since 2009, he should serve for 11 years but he is seriously ill and China does not want him to die in prison because they would be accused of having killed him. On the other hand,  the fact of having kept him in isolation, away from his relatives, while the world applauded him as the most prophetic and intelligent personality in China, created the foundations for a spiritual, psychological and therefore also physical affliction of Liu Xiaobo. But this is only an example. Since 2015 there has been a campaign against the so-called lawyers for human rights. 300 have been arrested, half of which Christians, in majority Protestants but also Catholics. These people are trying to defend cases such as those of people who had the house destroyed or seized, villages where the factories have polluted waters making agriculture and breeding impossible, persecuted Christians, communities that have seen the cross or the church destroyed, based on Chinese law. But since they had a large following and they endanger the supremacy of the Communist Party, they were arrested and many were tortured, some become crazy or mentally labile, others are literally disappeared. The human rights situation in China is appalling. You have the freedom to earn and spend, if you are a friend of some big shot of the party you can even be corrupted, because nobody will touch you unless he belongs to the faction opposing Xi Jinping, and therefore the society is frayed, with many tensions, and the dignity of the persons is not respected”.

Another sub-continent where Christians are often persecuted is India. We remember the massacres in Orissa in past years. How is the situation now?

In that big democratic country in Asia there have always been signs of intolerance against Christians but they have never been backed by the government. Now, after the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the advent of Modi as PM, many nationalist Hindu fundamentalists groups take the trouble to want to build the so-called hindutva culture and for example they push to abolish the slaughter and the sale of cow meat. But this is a production that affects hundreds of millions of people, Muslims, Christians and tribal peoples who live with this work. Then when there are attacks against churches, mosques, Christian or Muslim communities, the police do not move, do not look for the responsible. There is also a whole series of reprisals against Christian institutions, nuns, priests and lay people that more they perform charitable or emancipation actions in the field of education, more they are suspected of forced conversions. There was a nun who was accompanying some girls to a technical school to learn a profession and the police stopped her in the train accusing her of this crime. There is a terrible exaltation of fundamentalist nationalism which however risks to injure the economy, because an India so closed towards the world, towards other cultures and religions, present on its territory since always, goes toward the suicide”.

In addition to the North Korea where the persecutions of the regime are well known, how are Catholics in the Far East?

“Without doubt the worst situation is the one of North Korea where the only religion allowed is the one of ‘Trinity’ Kim: Il-sung, Jong-il and Jong-un. In Korea we cannot pray, the Church is nearly destroyed. According to the calculations, to the information our correspondents, there are some hundreds of real Catholics, even if the government every week in the cathedral of the diocese of Pyongyang shows about 2000 ‘Christians’ singing and praying. But they seem to be more paid actors than true faithful. Also because the Archbishop of Seoul, since the times of cardinal Kim, asked North Korea the possibility that a priest could go to Pyongyang to celebrate the Sunday Mass and then go back, but the authorities have never allowed it. In Vietnam and Laos, there are enormous limitations to freedom, continuous checks, even if these Churches are doing a great job for development, for education, both of children and adults, and also in the medical field in favour of so many poor. The problem of these communist parties, that also applies to the Chinese one, is that they want to be totalitarian in being fully respected, they do not want to have ‘competitors’ therefore they do not even accept these gestures of service on the part of the Church because they fear that it could bring benefits”.

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