St. Joseph's Church in Beijing towers over busy Wangfujing Street, not far from Tiananmen. On an uncharacteristically humid afternoon in July, the courtyard is abandoned, save three men sleeping on benches outside the cathedral. The church doors are shuttered, but they're not locked. Outside the main gate, another four homeless people take refuge from the pounding sun and suffocating humid air. And inside, there's not a soul. For China's Catholics, worshipping doesn't always take place in the pews. Churches, like the cathedral in Wangfujing, are administered by the State Administration for Religious Affairs and a body that falls right under its supervision, called the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA). The purpose of the CCPA is to safeguard the autonomy of the Chinese church, it states — but these safeguards include a disconnection from the Vatican, and, tight state control. This, in turn, drives many Chinese Catholics to worship underground. "[The CCPA] violates the faithful's freedom of conscience and the essential properties of the Catholic Church," says Or Yan Yan, a project officer at the Justice and Peace Commission of Hong Kong Diocese. "The CCPA is controlled by the Chinese government and manipulates a significant part of the church's issues, such as carrying out illicit Episcopal ordination, or interrupting personnel appointments," she says.
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One example is electing bishops. The highest decision makers in China's state-administered churches are CCPA members, chosen by the government. "This violates the church's autonomy and normal operations," says Or Yan Yan. The Holy See can't interfere, because China expelled its Vatican envoy from the country in 1951. But there are signs this may change soon: A recent investigation by Reuters says Pope Francis is pushing to repair ties between Beijing and the Vatican with an agreement on the selection and ordination of bishops. Reuters also reports that Pope Francis will probably pardon eight bishops who were ordained in Beijing without the Vatican's approval, signaling his ambition to get the Vatican back into China. Outside of the capital
But why Catholicism is allowed to exist so easily in Beijing, whether it's state-sanctioned or not — as compared to the devastating crackdowns on religion in China's provinces — is still unclear. Xinjiang has seen major restrictions on Islamist religious activity over the past years, and the central government has reasserted control over Buddhist practices in Tibet. In Sichuan, the Chinese government begun demolishing parts of the world's largest Buddhist institute in July. And in Zhejiang, the local government in Shuitou just months ago had workers forcibly remove crosses from churches. The crackdowns on Christianity in Zhejiang have been reported since 2014, where officials have removed more than a thousand crosses from churches. William Nee, a Hong Kong-based China researcher at Amnesty International, says that in Zhejiang, the Party leadership there may be using the rural province as a petri dish for political experimentation. "If it's successful, it could be rolled out through the country," Nee says. He adds that Beijing hasn't been as hostile to religious activity in the capital as in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Zhejiang, but it's impossible to know if this will change. One signal, though, is the passing of the country's new law regulating foreign NGOs, which makes China's climate profoundly less friendly to non-Chinese religious organizations doing work across the country. The legislation has expelled some foreign Christian groups from operating in the country, according to Amnesty. "In China, there's always tension between faith, national security, and the role religion can play," Nee says, adding this tension is only getting tighter. That tension can be what drives people underground and away from the state-sponsored church to worship. "People don't trust the authenticity of the church, even though the official church has more money," he says. There are about 10 million Catholics who worship with the state-sponsored church, but there are some 70 million Christians in the country, Reuters reports in its investigation. "The official church sees the underground church as a threat to a great extent," says Or Yan Yan. "And I don't think that people chose to be part of the CCPA church — but the government forces them to accept the CCPA. It's well known that the CCPA isn't popular. There isn't freedom to choose, there isn't the freedom of association, and the church does not have the basic right to autonomy." Or Yan Yan adds that President Xi Jinping has said that religious groups must submit to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, and not that of religious associations. "I think the main problem is the government's control," she says. In China, all religious venues must be registered with the government for religious practices — otherwise, they can be regarded as illegal. The underground church, of course, is not registered — and while worshippers risk being arrested for their beliefs, they are able to have more flexibility when it comes to services, and they are able to bypass censorship on their religious publications. "This kind of freedom is fragile indeed," says Or Yan Yan. Anthony Lam, who works as a senior researcher at Hong Kong Diocese's Holy Spirit Studies Center, says the church could be tolerant to the CCPA. "If it were just an organization comprised of a few Catholics, or even some priests, for their own gain, to work to promote the government, we would never say 'no,'" he says. But like Or Yan Yan says, the problem is that the CCPA is essentially trying to rewrite the church's DNA in China. "The government cannot organize any special institute trying to override authority of the church hierarchy — that's unacceptable," says Lam.