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Dwindling heritage landmarks at fire risk

Church and Beijing seek ways to protect historic sites

Our Lady of Sorrows Cathedral, a blend of Chinese and Western architecture Our Lady of Sorrows Cathedral, a blend of Chinese and Western architecture
  • ucanews.com reporter, Suzhou
  • China
  • February 17, 2011
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Protecting China’s historical religious sites has become a serious concern for Catholics and the government following a blaze at a Buddhist temple in south-eastern Fujian province last week.

The grand hall and one of the wooden chambers of Fahai Temple in Fujian’s capital, Fuzhou, were gutted by fire on February 7, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

The blaze began after revellers celebrating Chinese New Year set off fireworks near the temple, Xinhua reported.

Founded in 945 A.D., the temple is home to the provincial and city Buddhist associations.

As a result of the blaze, the State Administration for Religious Affairs in Beijing issued an emergency fire-prevention notice to all its provincial and municipal bureaus two days later.

It ordered frequent inspections of fire-fighting equipment, immediate removal of fire hazards in religious venues, and improved awareness on fire safety issues among the clergy.

The Catholic Church in China is now also looking at how to protect its dwindling number of historical sites.

Almost all the existing historical churches were built after the First Opium War (1839-42) but many didn’t survive a turbulent 20th century, which saw the Boxer Uprising (1900), Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), civil war and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

Our Lady of Sorrows Cathedral in Suzhou city, Jiangsu province, is one of the oldest churches in eastern China. The wood-and-brick church, which mixes Chinese and Western architecture, also suffered a fire accident recently.

“We had a small fire but soon put it out. There was a short circuit when we decorated the manger with Christmas lights,” said Father Joseph Xu Jianguo, the parish priest.

The 117-year-old church has just replaced the circuitry, he told ucanews.com.

“We are more aware about fire prevention,” especially after the manger incident and the Fahai Temple blaze, Father Xu noted.

“During Church feasts the parish appoints several laypeople as fire prevention officers, while on normal days it’s my responsibility to keep the church safe,” he said.

The fire department also carries out monthly inspections.

In northern China, a blaze that engulfed Xuanhua diocese’s Shuangshu church in 2009, during renovation work, is still fresh in people’s minds.

Workers using a blowtorch to dry asphalt were blamed for the accident.

Paul, a Xuanhua layman, said he and many parishioners watched helplessly as the 87-year-old Gothic church was swallowed by flames.

“It was a painful lesson for all clergy and faithful,” he said.

The church has been rebuilt and parishioners are expecting its interior to be completed soon, Paul added.

However, some rural churches lack the resources to implement adequate fire-prevention measures.

In Fujian, a parish priest of Mindong diocese said their century-old churches lack funds for fire-fighting equipment and keeping the churches in good repair.

“We can do nothing except be vigilant,” he said, adding that firemen rarely inspect rural churches or train resident priests in fire prevention.

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