Hundreds of underground Catholics in mainland China were stopped from celebrating the Feast of the Assumption on Aug. 15 in the latest example of communists suppressing Christians under cover of Covid-19.
Although most public places, including movie halls, remain open, churches are yet to function in most parts of China. The Marian feast is a day of obligation for Catholics when they are required to take part in Eucharistic liturgy.
Traditionally, the Feast of the Assumption is considered one of the major Catholic celebrations in China along with Christmas and Easter, when hundreds gather in their parish churches for solemn liturgical celebrations and exchange greetings.
However, this year most churches of the underground communities in Shenyang, Liaoning province, were closed. Officials presented it as a step to avoid large gatherings to check the spread of Covid-19.
A few churches were opened but police beefed up patrols to restrict the number of people gathering in them, local Catholics told UCA News.
However, underground priests offered Masses for smaller groups in homes, helping parishioners meet the requirements of the day of obligation.
Teresa Jia, an underground parishioner, said her mother attended Mass the night before the feast day at a parishioner's home.
"The priest held Masses in several places, each with about 10 people," she said. "Things are better in Shenyang, where there are no conflicts between the underground and open churches. The government more severely suppresses the underground ones."
She also attends Masses in the state-sanctioned open church because underground priests want Catholics to fulfill their obligations. But during the epidemic, "the government has tightened the restrictions on open churches too. So I don't go often."
Local governments in northern China shut down churches of underground communities soon after the pandemic began to spread early this year, purportedly to control the virus. China currently has some 80,000 cases of infection.
Paul Lu, a sacristan in a northern Chinese church, said his parish was closed because of the pandemic. He said the local government has been forcing priests of his parish to join the open church. “If he fails [to do so], they threaten to shut down the church,” he added.
The government closed his church after the Aug. 9 Sunday Mass and did not allow to open it on the feast day of Aug. 15 on grounds of checking epidemic control. “This is obviously the government threatening the priest to join the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association,” he said.
Lu is holding discussions with priests and parish presidents about how to communicate with the government. He fears that once the church is closed, it will be taken over and they will never be allowed to open it again.
John Li, an underground parishioner in Anhui province in the north, said authorities shut down several underground churches, citing pandemic reasons, but the open church can hold Masses. "So we had to go to an open church to participate in the liturgy," he said.
He said their church was closed but opened for the feast Mass. Each time a Mass is celebrated, officials stand at the door, limiting the number of people entering the church.
The government has put strict restrictions on people attending services, such as temperature checks, registration of personnel information and a ban on children. Even the open church is not allowed to have minors inside churches.
Jacob Zhang, president of a parish church in Hebei province, said his church has 300-400 Catholics attending Masses and about 3,000 on feast days in normal times.
On the Feast of the Assumption, authorities allowed only 50 people to attend Mass. However, several priests took turns to celebrate seven Masses through the day until evening. "But even then, many people were not able to attend," Zhang said.
Zhang, who was baptized some 50 years ago, said this year's Feast of the Assumption was the saddest because there was "no festive mood at all."