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Catholics recall horrors of China's Cultural Revolution

Villagers tell of watching in mute fear as friends were tortured in public during 1966-76 Cultural Revolution
Catholics recall horrors of China's Cultural Revolution
A crowd denounces priests in Tianjin, China, in 1966. (Photo from Anthony E. Clarke's private collection at Whitworth University)
Published: September 10, 2018 03:44 AM GMT
Updated: September 10, 2018 03:46 AM GMT

Zhang Guohua will never forget the horrors that plagued his village in Hebei province during China's Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when he was forced to watch public beatings, torture and ritual humiliation.

Four decades have passed since that painful chapter in the country's modern history drew to a close, but the memories of Christians being persecuted remain fresh in his mind. A local church that was dismantled during that bloody decade has since been rebuilt. It now stands as a towering testament to the enduring faith of Chinese Christians. 

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has worked painstakingly to erase much of what happened during that stormy period from its official history books, but Christians in this northern province near Beijing claim there has been a recent renaissance in terms of the harassment they face.

In January 2017, reports emerged of state-sanctioned gangs severely beating parishioners in Hebei after they tried to resist the destruction of an officially registered church.

The government had reportedly offered to buy the property for one-tenth of its appraised value. When church authorities declined, the property developer allegedly sent thugs to make them rethink their position.

This came in the wake of a widespread campaign to remove crosses and demolish religious venues in various parts of the country. Zhejiang in eastern China went a step further by banning unofficial "house churches" as well as prohibiting all religious activity at medical institutions, chinaaid.org reports.

The CCP is officially atheist but allows state-sanctioned churches and clergy to operate in the country, meaning the majority of China's Christians belong to the so-called underground church.

Meanwhile, the Vatican held a fresh round of talks with Beijing in June on the naming of bishops — China has hitherto refused to recognize those appointed in Rome — with the Holy See reportedly expressing concern over recently tightened restrictions on religious practice on the Chinese mainland.

Yet stories like these still pale in comparison to what Zhang endured in the predominantly Catholic village of Fanjiageda in Hejian City's Guxian Township nearly half a century ago. It ranks as the largest parish in Hebei's Xian County with more than 1,500 registered Catholics.

Zhang was born a Catholic in 1944, meaning he had just hit his 20s when the catastrophic Cultural Revolution began.

"It was a movement," he said. "No one dared to say anything. I remember one occasion when our team leader, whose name was Gao Wenfa, sang a Christian verse in Latin. Someone reported him to the authorities and he was humiliated and tortured in public. But that kind of thing was commonplace. Many people were beaten, and I mean really beaten."

Other Christians who refused to denounce their faith were criticized for their "stubbornness" and detained inside the church, Zhang said.

Reciting prayers was strictly prohibited. Any transgressors were almost certain to be discovered, identified to Red Guards and flogged.

According to A Brief History of the Fanjiageda Church, edited by devout Catholic Joseph Zhang, local authorities held a meeting at the church and decided to dismantle its altar and demolish its cross and statue of St. Joseph.

A carpentry cooperative was subsequently set up. It dismantled what was left of the church and the commune took the bricks and wood to construct other buildings.

The author also recalls how one day in the fall of 1967 a troop of Red Guards arrived in the village and took down the church's bell tower to put the final nail in the coffin of this much-loved Gothic-style church.

Related properties including a school it supported, the Notre Dame Pavilion and the St. Teresa Pavilion were also dismantled, he said.


Priest censured

The book also tells the story of Jesuit priest Liu Jingfu, who was arrested with other prelates in 1954, about five years after Mao Zedong officially founded the People's Republic of China.

A series of purges followed, ostensibly part of a broader effort to rid the leadership of corruption and get rid of enemies of the state, which included in some cases devout believers in religion.

Father Liu was born in Fanjiageda but served in another parish. He was tried at a mass public hearing and sentenced to 12 years' "labor reform" after refusing to recant his faith. This saw him sent to the Qinghe Brick and Tile Factory.

Zhang Guanghua (no relation to Zhang Guohua or Joseph Zhang) used to study under Father Liu. The book recounts his tale of driving a truckload of bricks away from the factory one day when the prelate approached him and urged him not to lose his faith, but also not to visit him anymore. He said he drove away in tears.

In November 1958, Father Liu was taken to Lake Xingkai Farm in Mishan County of Heilongjiang province for more labor reform. He finally returned to his home village in1968, where he tended the fields, cultivated wolfberry and performed sacraments in secrecy.

Parishioners gradually learned of his presence and would seek him out during their lunch breaks or in the dead of night to give confession, receive anointments or take communion, Zhang writes in his book.

Gradually, the prelate's "illegal activities" became an open secret.

On the evening of Nov. 20, 1975, he was arrested again, this time for performing the sacraments. During his trial, his outspokenness and absolute refusal to recant resulted in him being detained for another period.

Zhang Guohua, who is now in his mid-70s, said he has personally been granted access to two of Father Liu's "self-examination" reports.

He recalled how one stated, "if you want me, a believer who was baptized at a very young age, to change, then I don't think you will find what you are looking for."

The other was equally unbending. "I believe those who pursue the truth will one day meet on the true path," it read.

After being detained for another 30 months in harsh conditions, Father Liu's health had deteriorated greatly but his unyielding spirit earned him the respect of local Party officials, the elderly Zhang said.

He was acquitted on June 16, 1978, two years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, and allowed to return to Fanjiageda one more.

In the years that followed, he resumed his preaching duties — something Christians in Hebei are still doing, often covertly, despite the CCP's latest crackdown.

Lang Tao Sha is a Chinese Catholic and journalist

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