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Beijing vs. God
The eternal struggle between faith and politics flares up again as China marks 51 years of communist rule

Hong Kong: Is the territory cracking down on protests too?

Under a drizzling Roman sky on the first day of October, John Paul II spoke movingly of little Anna Wang. The 14-year-old Chinese girl, intoned the Pope, "resisted the executioners' threats" demanding that she renounce her Christian faith, "prepared for decapitation [and] cried with a radiant face: 'The door of heaven is open to all.' "

One of the first Chinese ever to be declared saints by the Catholic Church, Anna was not celebrated in her homeland. China denounced the canonization of 87 Chinese Christians and 33 foreign missionaries. It accused most of them of being criminals and agents of imperialism rightly targeted in the anti-colonial Boxer Rebellion a century ago. Honoring them delivered a grave insult to the nation, the government fumed, and to canonize them on Oct. 1, the 51st anniversary of the People's Republic, was a further affront.

Leaders of the Beijing-approved Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and the China Christian Council, which represents Protestants, joined in condemning the Vatican. Patriotic Bishop Michael Fu Tieshan said: "Choosing [Oct. 1] to canonize the so-called saints is an open insult and humiliation against Chinese Catholic adherents. Today is a holiday that marks the liberation of the Chinese nation from imperial and colonial invasion and robbery." Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, mainland officials urged the local Catholic hierarchy to keep celebrations low key (and they were).

In Beijing, the regime had trouble with another faith. Among thousands of people who gathered in Tiananmen Square during National Day festivities were hundreds of members of an outlawed spiritual movement. They openly courted arrest by unfurling banners asserting, "Falungong is good." Like other believers who mounted similar protests since the sect was banned in July last year, the demonstrators were collared, beaten and packed into police vans. But even officials privately admit that the Falungong faithful, who number in the millions, will continue challenging the prohibition on their exotic mix of Buddhist beliefs and qigong spiritual exercises.

While the crackdown on Falungong merely continued existing policy, the canonization dispute seemed to mark an unequivocal turn for the worse in relations between China and the Church. Just last year, after decades of frostiness, there were indications from Beijing that it may forge diplomatic ties with the Vatican. In return for transferring its embassy from Taipei to Beijing, the Holy See hoped that China would stop persecuting the 6 million or so members of the "underground church," who are loyal to the Pope.

But Beijing has evidently decided to take an even harder line. In a Communist Party Central Committee paper titled Document 26, dated Aug. 16, 1999, the leadership called on authorities to tighten control of the official church and eliminate the pro-Vatican one. Reportedly leaked to the underground church in November, the paper said that even after normalizing relations with the Vatican, Beijing aimed to keep the Chinese faithful free from any influence from Rome. Writes Fr. Jeroom Heyndricks in the Hong Kong Catholic newspaper Sunday Examiner: "In exchange for giving up its nunciature [the Vatican embassy] in Taipei, Beijing offers the Holy See only a dead bird, a nunciature in Beijing where the Patriotic Association — not the bishops — directs the church."

In January the growing fissure came to fore when the official church ordained five new bishops on the same day that the Pope consecrated 12 prelates from various countries. Since then, Beijing has stepped up its pressure on the underground church. According to the U.S. State Department's Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, some 20 unregistered Catholic churches were demolished in China in 1999. In May this year Jiang Shurang, an underground priest, was imprisoned for six years for printing Bibles without permission. Four other bishops were detained for refusing to join the official church or conducting unauthorized services.

Hopes for repairing Beijing-Vatican ties briefly flickered with the recent visit to China of top envoy Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, his third since 1980. But the canonization conflict has now brought relations to their lowest in years. There is even talk that the Vatican chose Oct. 1 for the ceremony as a deliberate challenge to China. Church figures maintain that the date was set as early as mid-1998. They add that the exhaustive investigation leading to sanctity had been going on for decades with no protest from Beijing. Still, if relations were good, both sides might have found a compromise on the canonization.

During the apparent thaw last year, there was speculation that China might want to improve ties with the Vatican as a way of deflecting foreign criticism of its harsh crackdown on Falungong. Now, it seems that Beijing doesn't even care to accommodate one faith as it suppresses another. Like China's past rulers through the millennia, the current leadership will tolerate no challenge to its supremacy. For the suffering faithful, that may mean many more martyrs in the years to come.

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