In China, Chinese Catholics more than ever on the alert

In China, Chinese Catholics more than ever on the alert
In China, Chinese Catholics more than ever on the alert

“We continue to care for our elderly and pray together every day with the greatest discretion… More than ever we must be extremely careful because the authorities are monitoring us very closely. » These few words whispered over encrypted messaging to a Western journalist who has known her for a long time could cost Sister Claire dearly, a pseudonym she chose to avoid being spotted by the very sophisticated Chinese cyber surveillance services. “The eyes and ears of the Chinese Communist Party never sleep. »

From her clandestine monastery camouflaged as a retirement home on the borders of the mining province of Shanxi in northern China, Sister Claire has led a monastic life for more than twenty years with three other nuns. “God looks at me too, but he protects me. » In his eyes, the agreement signed in October 2018 and still in force, allowing the Vatican and China to appoint, by mutual agreement, bishops throughout the Middle Kingdom, “didn’t change much; worse, because the cadres of the Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics (CCPA) (1) feel their legitimacy reinforced and force us to follow the central directives of the party. » Even if it means using physical constraint. Sister Claire recognizes, however, that for the 12 million Chinese Catholics, “official” as “illegals”the situation has deteriorated deeply “degraded” since leader Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.

With Xi Jinping, a dramatic shift

More than a thousand kilometers away, still safe in her diocese of Hong Kong, Annie, a 60-year-old Catholic activist, feels this “dramatic shift for several years”. For this very committed devotee in China where she often taught for thirty years, “we are almost back to the late 1970s when we knew nothing about what was happening beyond the bamboo curtain.” Also very rare today are the Chinese priests, nuns or faithful who dare to express themselves by telephone, email or messaging, even encrypted. ” It’s too dangerous. »

Information circulates very poorly, or not at all. Getting there is just as risky. “I no longer dare to go to the continent to visit a parish, confides Chan, a Hong Kong Catholic journalist. I would endanger the priests and faithful I met, surveillance has been strengthened, cameras are installed in front of the churches…”“When you manage to contact a long-time acquaintance, says Annie, she doesn’t speak, and even less on the 2018 agreement. » As if the subject was radioactive.

“With the Communist Party we do not dialogue, we clash”

“In the 1990s and 2000sshe recalls, a little disappointed, we had hope of seeing this Church torn apart by Maoism unify again, but since the arrival of Xi Jinping in 2012… He wants to Sinicize it and submit it to communist ideology. » For her, “Pope Francis is trying to maintain a dialogue by making some concessions, imagining himself scoring a few points but this seems a little illusory.” Drawing on her decades of experience in China, Annie concludes: “With the Communist Party we do not dialogue, we confront each other. »

Certainly Chinese Catholics, “official” as “illegals”, continue to practice, pray, teach catechism… Despite increasingly strict constraints. But their situation can vary from one extreme to another depending on the province, the wounds of the history of the diocese under Maoism, the personality of the bishops (recognized or not by the Vatican) and their relations with the local political authorities (more or less sympathetic). “But I can assure you that the general atmosphere is very gloomy,” says Marie, a Chinese Catholic from Sichuan province in southwest China who lives in the United States.

“Either the pope is poorly advised, or he does not understand China”

Coming from a Catholic family “for ten generations, when the priests of the Foreign Missions of Paris (MEP) arrived in Sichuan two centuries ago”Marie manages to keep in touch with her very large family. “My octogenarian aunts, uncles, cousins ​​are divided like many Chinese Catholic families” between “official” And “illegals” that the Vatican has wanted to unify for decades. “In history, the party has always wanted to control the lives of all Chinese people, she explains, but since Mao’s death, the situation with Xi Jinping has never been so dramatic. » Marie defends the clandestine Catholics, numerous in her family, while recognizing that many bishops and priests “official” make a “great job”.

However, she considers that “the 2018 agreement is a disaster! We cannot leave the Church of China under the control of the party that destroys everything.” She thinks that the Pope, “left-wing Argentine Jesuit”imagines being able to find a compromise with Beijing. “Either he is poorly advised, or he does not understand China, thinks Marie, because the greatest confusion reigns within the Church of China. »

“Everything is not rosy but not all black either”

Returning from a brief stay of a few days in the province of Fujian, opposite Taiwan, Michel Chambon, researcher at the National University of Singapore, specialist in religions in Asia, takes a more relaxed look at the impact of 2018 agreement. “Everything is not rosy but not all black either”, he assures after visiting Mgr Wu Yeshun, bishop of Minbei, ordained in January, by mutual agreement between Rome and Beijing. “A pious man, close to his flock, respectful of all local spiritual sensitivities”, affirms this specialist who participated in the Easter celebrations with the faithful.

“In this region the situation is improving between officials and illegal immigrants, he says, the two communities coexist peacefully without merging. » Adding that in a neighboring parish, unity was achieved recently. “Clandestine and official priests pray together, this is notable progress and the 2018 agreement has undoubtedly contributed to it,” he explains while specifying that the diocese of Fuzhou, capital of Fujian, is still very divided. “It takes time to foster communion rather than division, does he think, the Vatican is moving forward step by step to show its respect for all sensitivities. » The long march of Chinese Catholics towards freedom is still far from over.

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A secret agreement signed in 2018

The agreement between China and the Vatican was signed in October 2018 and renewed twice, in 2020 and then in 2022. It allows the Chinese government and the Pope to jointly appoint bishops.

It aims to unify the Catholic Church in China and avoid an irremediable separation between two trends, one “clandestine” and the other “official”.

The plan of “sinicization” of religions, adopted in 2015 by Xi Jinping, aspires to make different faiths compatible with Chinese communist culture. It led to a drastic tightening of control over religious communities, official and clandestine.

(1) The Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics is a communist political structure established after Mao came to power in 1949 whose role is to control the life of dioceses, bishops and priests, under higher authority of the Office of Religious Affairs at the national level.

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