Skip to comments.Jesus gets Beijing's blessing
Posted on 01/08/2002 9:26:42 PM PST by ATOMIC_PUNK
|Jesus gets Beijing's blessing
China's modern message to believers: love your god, but be loyal to your country
John Gittings in Shanghai
Friday December 28, 2001
Chinese Christians celebrated Christmas this year in a mood of renewed hope, as Beijing hints at greater religious tolerance. With more than 10m Catholics and Protestants in recognised churches - and millions more who worship unofficially - there is a more open mind to what religion can offer across China.
On a hillside 20 miles from Shanghai, topped by a Catholic cathedral built 70 years ago, the commitment of the faithful and the curiosity of ordinary Chinese are apparent.
A group of Chinese peasants makes its way slowly up the hill, praying at each station of the cross. The older men wear Mao jackets and caps while the younger ones have on their shiny best suits. There are bowlegged grandmothers wearing cloth shoes and young women in high heels - plus a few babies. Many carry pieces of cardboard to kneel on, and rosaries to tell. Their local pastor leads them in fervent prayer.
At the top stands Sheshan cathedral, a fine Romanesque building finished in the 1930s and decorated outside with cherubs. Seminary students hand out brochures to parties of curious Chinese tourists and explain the Catholic faith.
"Religion is not a superstition," the clergy in Shanghai are anxious to make clear - especially at a time when the Falun Gong and other non-Christian sects are being denounced by Beijing.
"Religion does not try to cheat people of their wealth," the visitors are told. "Its followers observe proper regulations and live according to principle. Religion also has a deep influence on culture and art."
Chinese believers have been encouraged by a conference on religion held in Beijing earlier this month which was addressed by President Jiang Zemin. Mr Jiang spoke positively about people "with different religious beliefs" who were all said to be working hard for China.
More tentatively, there are signs of a renewed dialogue between Beijing and the Vatican to bridge decades of hostility.
Sheshan cathedral stands as a symbol of China's Christian revival - already substantial, though still incomplete - since the dark years of the cultural revolution (1966-76). Back then, the stained glass at Sheshan was smashed by the militant red guards. The remainder of the structure was restored in the early 1980s.
The replica of a missing bronze statue of Mary holding up the child Jesus was finally installed on the top of the tower last year, paid for by 10,000 believers: the cathedral is a famous Marian shrine.
Tourists gather at a postcard display of the life of Christ, from birth to resurrection, fascinated by a tale that they have never heard before.
One guide tries to explain the trinity. "It's like someone who has more than one role in life. For instance, someone might be a college graduate who now works as a civil servant - and also collects stamps."
Most Chinese are open-minded about different faiths these days, including many Communist party members. Only one visitor to Sheshan appears hostile.
"I don't believe you are doing this for free," she shouts at a young volunteer selling tracts. "Don't try to fool me - you must be getting paid."
A large group of high-school students is brought into the cathedral to sit in the pews and hear about its history. "It's beautiful," they chorus as they file out.
No one tells them that religion is the opiate of the people. A handout argues that the role it plays in society varies "according to the situation. Religion should not be summed up simplistically or judged by 'revolutionary' standards."
The situation today is that millions of Chinese attend church freely, although millions more worship in underground "house churches" - mostly in rural areas - and may be harassed from time to time. Some priests may be imprisoned.
Estimates of Catholic followers in China vary from 5m to 10m, while the figure for Protestants is probably much higher.
Official Catholic churches are "assisted" by the state-run Catholic Patriotic Association, which says the faithful should "love the country" and "love religion".
Sheshan is but one of a small group of hills rising from the flat land around Shanghai. It is a popular tourist spot and the cathedral charges admission.
The young man selling tracts believes that they are not deterred by the cost: "It's because we have an underground church as well as the overground one."
Most of the peasants at Sheshan hail from churches that accept the authority of Rome, and therefore remain unrecognised. They complete the stations of the Cross, and then worship at a grotto outside the cathedral wall before descending to three shrines - to Mary, Joseph and Jesus - where their devotions reach a peak. "We've come a long way to worship; we started at five in the morning, but we're not going in [the cathedral]," says one group.
Such a separation is not always as sharp as it sounds. "In practice there is often cooperation between the official and underground churches at the local level," says a new report on "religious minorities in China" by the Minority Rights Group International. The group does note that a radical section of the underground movement is now "more organised and assertive".
Efforts are underway to bridge the gap between Beijing and the Vatican. In October, the Pope apologised to China for "faults and errors" by missionaries during the colonial period.
Beijing allows Chinese believers to accept the Pope's "spiritual" leadership, but it insists that Rome must break diplomatic ties with Taiwan and "not interfere in our internal affairs".
The Vatican is not mentioned in the leaflets handed out at Sheshan, although the souvenir shop does sell a fine view of St Peter's Square.
Why don't you just let St. Patrick handle that, hmm?
au·thor·i·ty (-thôr-t, -thr-, ô-thôr-, ô-thr-) n. pl. au·thor·i·ties
The power to enforce laws, exact obedience, command, determine, or judge. One that is invested with this power, especially a government or body of government officials.