The Our Lady of Sheshan Minor Basilica in the Shanghai suburb of Sheshan. A high-level seminar hosted by the Shanghai Diocese had to be put on hold because of a five-day 'educational' workshop in Beijing run by the State Administration for Religious Affairs. (ucanews.com photo)
The Chinese central government has begun a five-day workshop run by the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) at a training center in Beijing, which has forced a seminar to commemorate the birth centenary of the late Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian of Shanghai to be postponed.
With five members picked from each province, about 150 Catholic bishops, priests, nuns and lay leaders are attending the SARA workshop that runs from June 20-24, according to those attending the workshop. They are there to learn the "spirit" of the National Conference of Religious Work held in April.
China observers believe the workshop is a further sign of the party inserting itself into church's affairs after the National Conference of Religious Work's and the SARA's response to an inspection by the party's anti-corruption watchdog, which criticized the administrative body's loose control on national religious groups.
"These findings are not about corruption. They are about urging SARA officials to implement strict management and control on religions," said Catholic commentator Bao Lu in his commentary written for ucanews.com.
"The inspection team suggests full implementation of the party's religious policy," wrote Lu.
Many observers believe that the SARA workshop has been designed to also block the Shanghai seminar which was to be held on June 20, Bishop Jin's birth centenary, as a way to minimize his perceived influence on the China church. "It is the party's tactics to use an event for multi purposes," said an observer.
Shanghai Diocese had invited a number of bishops who held posts in the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the bishop's conference and those in neighboring provinces to the seminar.
"Many bishops in different parts of China have to attend the workshop in Beijing. It is unclear now which bishops would come to the [rescheduled] seminar," which was postponed to June 28, a Shanghai church source told ucanews.com.
While some participants of the Beijing workshop only received word about their required attendance in the past few weeks, the Shanghai seminar was organized months ago.
Church observers' also noted a June 11 article posted on the popular Tianya Club internet forum which opposed Beijing allowing Auxiliary Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin to attend the Shanghai seminar as an informal way for him to leave his confinement since 2012 and take up his episcopal ministry.
The article, written by commentator Chulin Yifeng, was posted on International Outlook, a sub-forum that often sees fierce debates between rightist and the leftist commentators.
Yifeng is known for his close observations on the Shanghai Diocese and being informative on the China Church's dynamic. "He sees the church in a negative way but is believed to have back-up from Beijing," said a Catholic blogger who asked not to be named.
In his article, Yifeng disclosed that the religious officials in Shanghai has asked permission from the SARA and the United Front Work Department — a Party organ that oversees the administrative body — to allow Bishop Ma to be freed from his confinement, and to hold the high profile seminar to commemorate Bishop Jin.
Given Bishop Jin's delicate role in the China Church and on China-Vatican relations, a seminar held after the National Conference of Religious Work would send a message to the outside world that China recognizes Bishop Jin and his way in leading the church, Yifeng said.
"But this would reduce the basis of our work on the Catholic Church and cause negative effective to the Ninth National Congress of the Catholic Representatives," Yifeng continued, adding that there is a gap between Beijing and Shanghai officials' views on Bishop Jin.
When the Eighth National Congress of Catholic Representativeswas convened in 2010, the Holy See said in a statement that it was sorry to see the manner the congress was "convoked and its unfolding manifest a repressive attitude with regard to the exercise of religious liberty."
Yifeng also suspected the series of articles of Bishop Ma to commemorate Bishop Jin was to pretend that he has repented to get himself out of confinement.
The day after Yifeng's article was posted, the fifth commemoration article appeared on Bishop Ma's blog, causing a stir in the China Church.
Bishop Ma said in his June 12 blog post that he was deceived by others, regretted his decision to quit the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and sung praises for the organization.
The ruling communists established the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association to control the church in China. Almost all of the 97 dioceses in the government-sanctioned open community have established a local unit of the association.