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China's Catholics increasingly embrace cyberreligon

But church use of the Internet remains obstructed by the state

China's Catholics increasingly embrace cyberreligon

Young people browse the web with their smartphones in a fast-food restaurant in China. Despite a boom in Internet use, the mainland ranks at the bottom of global surveys in terms of Internet freedom. (Photo by reporter, Hong Kong

May 13, 2016

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The Internet in China currently plays a role in the lives of nearly 700 million people, and for some of them it is used for religious purposes.

"Want to listen to the Buddha's teachings but find no time to go to a temple? It doesn't matter. We have a public WeChat account," says a article published by the State Administration for Religious Affairs.

The article was about how a Buddhist temple in Wuxi city in eastern Jiangsu province integrates religious life with the Internet through mobile messaging, mostly via the hugely popular WeChat smartphone app.

The percentage of Chinese Internet users who use smartphones to browse the web reached 90 percent by 2015, says a report by the China Internet Network Information Center.

Catholic webmaster Pius Chen says smartphone apps enable the church to deliver its messages instantly. He also believes such forms of communication can help strengthen the Christian community.

Chen has joined 35 QQ chat groups and more than 20 WeChat groups which are all related to the church. Both the QQ and WeChat offer similar functions as Twitter and Facebook. Users can also set up private chat groups.

Chen says he spends almost 10 hours a day on the Internet.

"I'm checking and replying to emails every day, interacting in online chatrooms, browsing the web to find social and church news, and discussing online with others on matters related to faith," Chen says.

As cloud storage capacity increases and the quality of electronic devices improves, many Catholics in China are also grasping the broader opportunities that digital multimedia can offer.

Videos of church feast-day celebrations can be uploaded and shared via Tudou, a Chinese equivalent to YouTube, and audio recordings of a Mass homily can be listened to via "Changba," a mobile app for audio recordings, are just a few examples of online possibilities.

"Recent Internet developments do affect people's lives," Chen says. "It makes communication faster and geographical distance isn't an issue anymore," he says.

"For instance, news about the cross-removal campaign in Wenzhou was known in real time. It helps Catholics know about the situation and offers timely information."

However, online chat groups can get unruly, he says.

"There are several groups I visit frequently but I also block incoming messages from some others as their primary chatting is not related to faith, or they have endless arguments on controversial religious topics," Chen says.

Catholic writer Maria Liu believes many people browse and repost without comprehending the quality of what they are sharing online.

"Many articles that are good for spiritual growth are buried by the huge amount of other social media posts," Liu says.

"Though the web facilitates evangelization, we have to live out our faith in real participation," she says.

"People lose their peace of mind if they get addicted or distracted by mobile apps. This is taboo to a life of faith," she stresses.

Catholic bloggers say it is likewise difficult to determine the accuracy of church-related messages that are posted online.

"The influx of information is often mixed up with heresies and cults. Many Catholics retweet them with just a click without serious discernment," says Zong Xuebin, an active blogger in Jiangsu.

"There are also frauds, like some people disguised as Catholic priests. These incidents continue to happen," Zong says.

One example was a message that spread viral on the Internet about the "Maria Divine Mercy" posted by a woman who claimed she had a revelation of an apocalyptic prophecy. Her message spread so far that various dioceses had to issue alerts to remind Catholics not to believe in such heresy.

While cyberreligion is popular among laypeople and individual priests, Zong says that Catholic institutions currently aren't embracing the web.

"There is a lack of church administration presence on so-called Catholic QQ and WeChat groups. Anyone can establish one but the administrators may lack basic church knowledge while the clerics are paying little attention to this," Zong says.

"All dioceses should have their own websites and designated clerics can offer guidance to Catholics via the Internet. This will allow laypeople to discern the Catholic Church's teachings more accurately," he suggests.



There may be more Catholics in China going online to express their faith, but state imposed restrictions means they can only go so far. China currently ranks last in a global survey of 65 countries in terms of Internet freedom, said the US-based Freedom House in a report released in October.

Internet freedoms in China have recently declined in three aspects: obstacles to access, limits on content and violations of user rights, stated the report.

Cyberreligion was likewise a phenomenon underlined by Chinese President Xi Jinping in the National Conference of Religious Work in April. Catholic bloggers see it as a sign of tightening control though it has been there all along.

"The Ministry of Public Security has its special Internet monitoring centers to detect and control web comments. There is no freedom of speech on the web in China. All comments are confined within a specific scope and many sensitive words are restricted," Chen, the webmaster, says.

"There is no freedom to browse websites outside China, too. We need a VPN to bypass censorship," he adds.

Zong's blog was blocked for publishing "excessive" articles regarding the cross-removal campaign in Zhejiang. This did not surprise him.

"The social media accounts of some influential lawyers and pastors, including Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin of Shanghai, were also closed," Zong says.

"However, evangelization on the web is an obligation that Catholics should not avoid. We just have to be careful and try to avoid certain sensitive words," he says.

Even facing possible punishment, Zong says: "They [government officials] have the liberty to do what they want. But we didn't do any bad things."

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