Faith Without Freedom


2005.04.08
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ChinaPopeCry200.jpg
A Chinese Catholic at the Southern Cathedral in the heart of Beijing cries at early morning mass on the day of Pope John Paul II's funeral. Photo: AFP/Peter Parks

HONG KONG—As millions watched worldwide, the body of Pope John Paul II was laid to rest in the Vatican after his death at the age of 84. Catholics living under communist regimes in East Asia mourned their spiritual leader in the face of ongoing repression, according to rights activists and religious groups.

China permitted officially sponsored prayers for the Pope but refused to send an envoy to the Pope's funeral out of anger at the granting of a visa to Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian. Beijing has long insisted the Vatican cut links with the formerly Chinese Nationalist-ruled island.

But religious rights activists said the Chinese Communist Party was unlikely ever to allow direct ties between Chinese Catholics and the Vatican.

In the Catholic Church, priests and especially the higher Church officials must take thier orders from the Vatican. But in China the official Catholic groups take them from the party.

"In the Catholic Church, priests and especially the higher Church officials must take their orders from the Vatican. But in China the official Catholic groups take them from the Party," Li Shixiong, chairman of the New York-based Committee for the Investigation on Persecution of Religion in China told RFA's Mandarin service.

"Surely this is a joke. How can an atheist Party legitimize spiritual appointments?" Li said.

Beijing's attitude to the Vatican's authority was summed up neatly by Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang before China announced it would not send a delegation to the funeral.

"China's Constitution dictates that the Chinese government will not tolerate the interference of foreign forces in China's religious affairs," Qin told a regular news briefing.

Catholic remembrance in Vietnam

In Vietnam, home to eight million Catholics, Church leaders in Hanoi used loudspeakers to tell worshippers the funeral was being shown on a screen at St. Joseph's Cathedral.

Meanwhile, churches in Ho Chi Minh City held masses coinciding with the burial.

But Vietnamese religious groups have told RFA that Hanoi has recently stepped up Party control over all religious activities.

Vietnam's National Assembly passed a new Religion Law last November, setting out government limits and guidelines for religious attendance, including a set of guidelines specific to Christianity.

Religious leaders have called on the United States to impose sanctions on Hanoi for religious repression.

"For 30 years as well as for several recent months, the practice of Buddhism by our Association has been under persecution," Vo Van Ai, director of the international news office of the Vietnamese Unified Buddhist Association told RFA in a recent interview.

‘Systematic’ religious repression

"Not only Buddhism has been repressed, but other religions such as [Protestant] Christianity, Hoahaoism, Caodaism, Catholicism, and so on are in similar disastrous situations," Vo Van Ai told RFA's Vietnamese service.

"It is for this reason that the U.S. government has classified Vietnam as one of the eight countries that have systematically repressed religion in the world on a large scale."

He said the United States had extended a deadline to Vietnam to improve its record on religious freedom until mid-March, beyond which he believed that economic sanctions might follow.

Other Vietnamese religious followers expressed similar concerns.

China's Constitution dictates that the Chinese government will not tolerate the interference of foreign forces in China's religious affairs,

"As far as religious freedom is concerned, we notice that freedom seems to exist apparently because religious people are seen going to the monastery and a few monasteries have been built. However, internally there is no real freedom at all inside the system," Tran Quang Canh, director of the Agency for the Promotion of Caodaism Overseas, told RFA reporter Nguyen An.

A U.S.-based follower of Vietnam's Hoa Hao Church said a new charter had been imposed on her faith as a result of the Religion Law.

"Because the Hoa Hao Charter has been drafted according to the Religion Law, local security agents have based upon it to strengthen their repression of Hoa Hao followers," she said.

Online message boards cleared of religious posts

In China, online messages of condolence following the Pope's death began to appear on bulletin boards and discussion forums after the news was announced Sunday.

But by late Monday, China's top Internet service providers (ISPs) said they had removed discussions relating to the Pope, saying they feared non-believers would show disrespect for the beliefs of Catholics.

Nearly 10,000 Catholics attended masses held in five major Catholic churches in Beijing alone, with officially sanctioned ceremonies held in Shanghai, Tianjin, and other major cities, official media reported.

Not only Buddhism has been repressed, but other religions such as [Protestant] Christianity, Hoahaotism, Caodaism, Catholicism, and so on are in similar disastrous situations,

Leaders of China's state-sponsored Catholic groups—who are banned from recognizing the Vatican's authority—issued public statements of condolence.

"We sincerely express our deep condolences, on behalf of more than five million clergy and faithful of the Catholic Church in China, and pray God grant him an eternal reward," China's two chief Catholic groups said in a joint statement following the Pope's death.

But an unknown number of worshippers are likely to have joined in the ceremonies across China at unofficial "house" churches, which are subject to frequent raids and detentions by the authorities.

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