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Christian activities on campuses in China silently thrive

Catholic student groups active but keep a low profile to avoid state hostility

Christian activities on campuses in China silently thrive

Wearing the uniform of their Catholic student group, two university students answer questions while serving as receptionists at a Catholic Church on southern Hainan Island in January. (ucanews.com photo)

ucanews.com reporter, Hong Kong
China

June 2, 2016

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Every evening, Maria Dong prays with some 20 classmates in a classroom at a university in Hebei, a northern Chinese province that is home to nearly 1 million Catholics.

"There is no explicit rule, warning or reminder at the university that ban us from holding a religious gathering or form any religious group," says Dong.

Their prayer gatherings continue undisturbed, even though there was a public reminder about a long-standing ban on religious activity in schools and universities issued by the Education Department of northwestern Gansu province in May.

That warning was made in response to an online video featuring a kindergarten student reciting the Quran. The public warning said the incident "harms the mental health of the youth."

There have also been broad concerns among some religious minded Chinese about a tightening of state control on religions.

Passed in 1995, the Education Law stipulated that: "The state shall separate education from religion. Any organization or individual may not employ religion to obstruct the activities of the state education system."

But state policy on education and faith groups is known to be inconsistent in different areas.

The military and police have closed "illegal" madrassas or Islamic religious schools in far western Xinjiang. Minors also remain banned from entering mosques in the restive province.

Meanwhile young Muslims in other areas of the country can enter mosques freely, and Christians have been able to infuse education with religion with the tacit approval of authorities in some areas of China.

Yet still, Dong's group doesn't dare make their gatherings public knowledge nor do they hold evangelization activities openly out of fear of drawing attention. "This is the unspoken rule in China. One can do so but not in a high profile way," she says.

Dong anticipated that the school administration would oppose their activities if they found out about them. "No penalty, but it would remind us that there is no religious activity on campus," she adds.

Brother Paul, a seminarian in Hebei who serves youth ministry, says that school or college administrations could not do anything against gatherings involved in quiet activities such as singing hymns.

"Catholic students did not force others to join them. It is those curious passersby who sit down and sing together," says Brother Paul.

Teresa Sun, a Catholic student at another Hebei university, also prays with several classmates every evening in a classroom or in the schoolyard.

"Our school administration does not interfere with us. It just does not allow us to stay overnight outside on Christmas Eve or Easter. But even if we did, administrators will not really restrict us. I think their concern is not about religious activity but our safety," says Sun.

Just as with Dong's group, Sun says her group leader thinks it is best they keep their religious activities low-key as they conflict with state policy.

"Religious studies is also an academic subject now. The authorities should allow religions on campus," says Sun. "Our church is not an evil sect. Religious culture is full of positive energy, which is helpful to eradicate bad practices in society," she explains.

Christian student numbers

In 2013, Wei Dedong, a professor of Religious Studies at Beijing's Renmin University, wrote an article for the Zhongguo Minzu Bao newspaper where he estimated 3.6 to 3.9 percent of students in Beijing were Christians. He based his conclusion on three surveys made by two Beijing universities in 2001, 2009 and 2011.

Today, it is not difficult to find an informal Catholic student group in any Hebei university with several dozen students —  some have more than 100.

A similar situation can be found at universities in Beijing and Tianjin municipalities as well as in the cities of Taiyuan in Shanxi province and Hangzhou of Zhejiang province, says Pius Chen, a Catholic webmaster.

Newly admitted Catholic students would ask their parish priests for contacts in these Catholic groups or find out about them through chat groups on the internet before they arrived at the university, explains Chen.

Existing members of these Catholic groups would also knock door to door in the dormitories to look for new Catholic students at the beginning of each school year, says Brother Paul, the seminarian.

These student groups are just like other groups commonly found in a parish — they are well organized and have a spiritual director to lead them. They also often turn into a voluntary force conducting charity work.

Sun and her fellow Catholics will go to Mass either at a layman's home or in a church, and then do voluntary work in villages.

They not only help as volunteers at big religious events but also engage in social service outside the church, adds Chen.

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