ucanews.com reporter, Hong KongUpdated: October 20, 2016 11:08 AM GMT
Priests and laypeople from Anyang Diocese scuffle with security outside the building of the Hexi district committee in Tianjin on Oct. 18. (Photo supplied)
More than 40 clergy and laypeople held a protest in the Chinese city of Tianjin in a bid to seek compensation after a property — to which the church lays claims to — was demolished by the authorities without notice.
The two-day protest began Oct. 18 after Father Ma Yantao of Anyang in the province of Henan, who is assigned at Tianjin to handle diocesan property, informed Bishop Joseph Zhang Yinlin that the church's 973-square meter property on Fujian Road had been demolished.
The protest consisted of priests, nuns and laypeople from Anyang Diocese in nearby Henan province who waved banners and sang hymns as they picketed the Hexi district committee building and waited for the authorities to provide an explanation.
Minor physical clashes resulted as security guards pushed the protestors away and barred them from getting near the building.
On Oct. 19 the protest moved to the housing department of the municipal government as "officials from the district committee told them that they were not able to settle the issue," a source from Anyang told ucanews.com.
Bishop Zhang also arrived in Tianjin from Henan on Oct. 19 and he has remained there along with three priests and a layman after the Tianjin government promised to negotiate a resolution, according to the source.
"We don't know how long the negotiation will take and the bishop thinks the aim of the protest has been achieved so he told us to return home," the source said.
Nuns from Anyang Diocese protest while priests and laymen argue with security outside the building of Hexi district committee in Tianjin on Oct. 18. (Photo supplied)
Anyang Diocese owns several former church properties in Tianjin. Since 2005 it has stationed a priest there to reclaim its properties previously taken by the state and was successful with three cases in 2007.
However, the property on Fujian Road — a two-story building built by the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions — was left unresolved for more than a decade since as it was occupied by the Hexi district committee.
"The Tianjin government confirmed our ownership but it never proceeded with the necessary certification. It has never negotiated with us whether it will compensate us with another piece of land or by money," said the source from Anyang.
A history of communists taking church property
Before the communists took over China in 1949, many religious congregations, such as the Jesuits, the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions and the Congregation of the Mission, owned property in Tianjin, a major seaport and gateway to Beijing.
Most of their real estate was turned into government offices, schools and hospitals after foreign missionaries were expelled and religion was banned in the 1950s.
Since a policy to return confiscated property to the religious sector was implemented in 1982, some dioceses, such as Anyang, Hengshui, Xianxian and Xingtai have been trying to reclaim former church property in main cities such as Tianjin.
In recent years, more and more Catholics have dared to fight for their former land and put pressure on the government to return it.
"However, some governmental organizations were tyrannical. They just ignored the rule of law and refused to return the properties," said a Catholic blogger, writing for The Evangelization Group.
In 2005, a group of nuns from Tianjin Diocese launched a five-day fast to draw attention to their claim to a former church property. In that same year, unidentified assailants beat another group of nuns in Xi'an Diocese when they tried to prevent the demolition of a school campus formally owned by the church. Priests from Taiyuan and Yuci dioceses were also injured defending property in Tianjin during 2005 as well.
In 2014, the Yixingbu parish of Tianjin Diocese reclaimed their property after a 10-year battle during which they faced similar levels of intimidation.
Hong Kong's Holy Spirit Study Center once estimated that the Catholic Patriotic Association and government officials have pocketed an estimated US$16 billion from the sale of confiscated church land.