Seminarians in class at Shijiazhuang seminary in China's Hebei province. (Photo by ucanews.com reporter)
When Zhengding Cathedral held a Mass on Sunday, Dec. 13, so many people showed up, filling the church compound, that many had to stand on the roof of an adjacent building.
Roughly 10,000 Catholics came to church that day in this northern suburb of Shijiazhuang, the smoggy provincial capital of Hebei.
People traveled from as far as Beijing 300 kilometers away. But most striking was almost all of those who attended were members of China's underground church, and despite the presence of police, no one was detained.
"It was a miracle," said a layman.
While Christians and rights groups criticize President Xi Jinping for overseeing the worst religious persecution in more than a generation, Catholics in Hebei appear to enjoy a certain leeway — at least by Chinese standards.
Home to an estimated 1 million Catholics, Hebei have seen relatively few recent cases of persecution. Only two incidents have been recorded over the past 30 months by China Aid, a U.S.-based group tracking abuses against Christians in China.*
In Zhejiang province, where there are about 210,000 Catholics, dozens of cases were recorded over the same period as authorities removed 1,500 crosses from both Protestant and Catholic churches.*
"The Zhejiang and Hebei difference is evidence of the disarray in the Chinese Communist Party religious policy," said Fenggang Yang, director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University in the United States.
Xi is due to lead a meeting of the central government to draw up a uniform, nationwide program for managing religions but this has apparently been delayed. Even if Beijing does centralize policy managing Christians and other religions, differences in practice remain inevitable, added Fenggang.
A man prays inside the chapel Shijiazhuang seminary in China's Hebei province. (Photo by ucanews.com reporter)
At every administrative level in China, what you can and can't do typically depends on guanxi, or relations, with the Communist Party.
Faith Press, based in Hebei's capital Shijiazhuang, is estimated to print the largest circulation Catholic newspaper in China. In 1997, it claimed a readership of 43,000 across the country.
Operating out of the same office building, Jinde Charities calls itself the first Catholic charitable organization registered by the government since the communists took power in 1949.
In a sign of just how good Jinde's guanxi is with the government, staff have in recent years appeared at HIV/AIDS seminars with Xi's famous opera-singing wife Peng Liyuan, a goodwill ambassador for the World Health Organization.
By contrast, Xi has regularly urged ordinary Chinese to shun faiths deemed foreign such as Christianity and Islam in favor of "traditional Chinese religions."
"Hebei has a strong Catholic population. People of strong faith can also be good citizens of China," said Father Robert Carbonneau, executive director of the U.S. Catholic-China Bureau in Berkeley, California.
The entrance to Shijiazhuang seminary in China's Hebei province. Catholics in Hebei have been allowed some freedoms — by China standards — amid a wider crackdown on religious activity. (Photo by ucanews.com reporter)
Getting to the bottom of how exactly the church in Hebei manages relations with party officials remains difficult. Priests in cities including Shijiazhuang and Xianxian told ucanews.com "relations are good" but few are willing to explain how this delicate balancing act is maintained. Often the church appears to play the party at its own game.
At one old-age home run by authorities in Hebei, conditions used to be "awful." The more than 100 elderly living there were not properly cared for, said a priest.
So he started to give the head of the old age home regular "gifts" to gain access and help out caring for the elderly. Meanwhile, the priest has carried out dozens of baptisms. About one-third of the home's inhabitants have already been confirmed Catholics.
"Staff at the home don't know we are baptizing people there, it's done in secret," the priest said.
The church hasn't always managed to work with the system in Hebei. A school tucked behind Xianxian cathedral had been mixing the national curriculum with religious instruction. But an education inspector acting on an apparent tip-off told the school to stop in May.
Although unregistered church faithful have largely escaped persecution in Hebei in recent years, clergy have not — a sign of the limits of religious freedom across China.
Bishop Cosmas Shi Enxiang of Yixian was thought to have died last January after spending about half of his 94 years in detention, sources close to his family told ucanws.com at the time. But a government authority later denied he had passed away, refusing to confirm his location.
The bishop's punishment included hard labor in freezing Heilongjiang province after continually refusing to join the state-sanctioned Catholic Patriotic Association.
The only two other bishops in secret detention in China also languish somewhere in Hebei. Bishop James Su Zhimin of Baoding was first arrested 20 years ago after he too refused to join the CPA and has not been seen since 2003. Coadjutor Bishop Cui Tai of Xuanhua disappeared after his arrest in August 2014.
Relations between the Vatican and Chinese government reached a recent low in November, 2010, when Hebei authorities proceeded with the episcopal ordination of Joseph Guo Jincai in Chengde without papal approval, the first in four years.
Pope Benedict "received the news with deep regret," said a rare Vatican statement taking issue with China's government.
A new Catholic retreat and martyrs' graveyard in Xianxian serves as a reminder of the trying times the church has faced, and how it has prospered more recently in Hebei.
The tombs of two French missionaries stand here following their deaths at the hands of the Boxer Rebellion that swept violent anti-foreigner and anti-Christian feeling through China around 1900. The head of St. Remi Isore was hung at the entrance of Wuyi village in a warning to other Catholics.
During the Cultural Revolution ending in the mid-1970s, the graveyard was desecrated and the bodies of around 100 priests lost. Their gravestones were found years later, smashed after being used for flooring in a nearby factory and road junction.
In 2010, when the church was looking to build the center and cemetery, relations with Hebei authorities were so bad amid the spat over ordinations that permission was declined. Finally, last year, the center was built and the cemetery inaugurated in November.
"Relations with authorities are now good," said a priest, explaining the graveyard's turbulent history. "We do have some freedom here."
*This paragraph has been corrected and updated.
….As we enter the first months of 2022, we are asking readers like you to help us keep UCA News free.
For the last 40 years, UCA News has remained the most trusted and independent Catholic news and information service from Asia. Every week, we publish nearly 100 news reports, feature stories, commentaries, podcasts and video broadcasts that are exclusive and in-depth, and developed from a view of the world and the Church through informed Catholic eyes.
Our journalistic standards are as high as any in the quality press; our focus is particularly on a fast-growing part of the world - Asia - where, in some countries the Church is growing faster than pastoral resources can respond to – South Korea, Vietnam and India to name just three.
And UCA News has the advantage of having in its ranks local reporters who cover 23 countries in south, southeast, and east Asia. We report the stories of local people and their experiences in a way that Western news outlets simply don’t have the resources to reach. And we report on the emerging life of new Churches in old lands where being a Catholic can at times be very dangerous.
With dwindling support from funding partners in Europe and the USA, we need to call on the support of those who benefit from our work.