By Citra Sidhu
CHINA has seen an escalation in religious persecution in recent months, according to Christian human rights groups, as relations between the Vatican and China cool over the possibility of a papal visit to Hong Kong.
Hopes for a papal visit to the island were dashed by the Chinese government this week, when it stated that for the visit to be approved, the Vatican would have to break its relations with Taiwan. The Holy Father hopes to travel to Asia for the solemn closure of the Synod of Bishops for Asia. held in Rome last year.
Meanwhile, the US-based Cardinal Kung Foundation, which supports underground Catholics in Beijing, has reported a worrying number of incidents in May of this year alone, suggesting a government crackdown on the underground Catholic Church.
On May 13, Father Yan Weiping, 33, was found dead in a street in Beijing within hours of being arrested by government security officials while offering Mass. Although there was no postmortem it appeared that he had been beaten to death and his body thrown out of a window. Other lay people present were beaten by government officials and had their homes set on fire.
In a separate incident, government agents tried to arrest a priest who was celebrating Mass in a private home. Four lay people who helped the priest escape were arrested and sent to "re-education" camps.
In Baoding, seminarian Wang Qing was beaten and tortured. He was "hung for three days by his hands with his toes barely touching the ground" and force-fed a "filthy liquid" causing gastro-intestinal illness, according to the Foundation.
Cases of priests being interrogated and tortured by a "special unit" made up of security agents and prostitutes who "tried to force priests to have sex" have also been reported by the Vatican missionary agency Fides. The government has denied this, calling the report "lies."
Cecilia Bromley-Martin of Aid to the Church in Need, which supports the persecuted Catholic Church throughout the world, said: "While in China last year, I met one Catholic priest who unable to stay in his own diocese because the persecution was so fierce.
"He told me that the persecution seems to come in waves: three years of severe oppression, then three years when it is less intense. However, there does not seem to be any long-term let up in recent years." Wilfred Wong of the Christian human rights pres sure group Jubilee Campaign said: "The rise in the number of incidents shows very starkly just how serious religious persecution is in China and challenges all of us to do something about it."
The incidents centre on northern China's Hebei province on the outskirts of Beijing, home to an estimated one million Catholics loyal to the Holy See. In 1957, Chinese Catholics split over the setting up of the government-approved Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which rejects papal authority and elects bishops without Vatican approval. An underground church in China, estimated to number millions of faithful, professes loyalty to the pope.
Although no-one has been able to give a single reason for this renewed wave of persecution, it coincides with the Chinese Communist Party's 78th anniversary celebrations. On July 1 in a public address. President Jiang Zemin criticised citizens who "believe in superstitions" and urged them to adhere instead to "historical materialism". Moreover, the Communist People's daily newspaper has published a series of articles condemning "religious idealism".