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United we stand: China's underground priests

Clerics accept Sino-Vatican deal on appointing bishops but warn of bleak future without religious freedom
United we stand: China's underground priests

Chinese Catholics sit inside the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Guangzhou in Guangdong province on Sept. 22. Despite the Vatican-China deal on appointing bishops, underground priests say the China Church has no freedom. (Photo by Johannes Eisele/AFP)

Published: November 30, 2018 03:35 AM GMT
Updated: November 30, 2018 03:44 AM GMT

Priests of the Chinese underground church understand Pope Francis' good intentions for it to be united with the government-sanctioned church, but say they are not optimistic as China has no true religious freedom.

Father John told ucanews.com that before and after the signing of the provisional Vatican-China agreement on appointing bishops, underground priests in his area held several private meetings to discuss the situation.

They unanimously decided that "if we are to become official, we will act together; in other words, if the pope wants us to be open, we will be open together; otherwise, we will together keep in the state of being underground."

After the signing of the agreement on Sept. 22, however, they decided not to join the state-sanctioned church for the time being.

"We are confused. We fully agree with Pope Francis that the agreement is for pastoral needs, but we do not understand why the pope accepts those eight illicit bishops. Does it mean there is no problem with the independent election and ordination of those bishops?" Father John asked.

After the agreement was signed, authorities sent personnel to parishes to lobby or force underground clerics to join the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) or face being defined as illegal, he said.

"We agree with the pope's intentions, and we do not oppose the agreement, but we do not dare to be open without seeing religious freedom," Father John said.

"Will the government give us greater freedom after we become official? Is there any benefit to underground church evangelization? Has the government changed?"

He said priests did not see any future and thought that "we should not go too fast" but should continue to observe.

Father John said the agreement could not make the China Church united but would increase the split.

Since the agreement, some priests think the Holy See has accepted the Chinese Communist Party's version of an independent church, so they would rather join the CCPA because the pope does not object to it anyway, he said.

"But there are faithful of the government-sanctioned church who regard underground priests who become open as being too close to the government," Father John said.

"With the authorities asking the church to raise the national flag and sing the national anthem, they feel the church is no longer like a church, so they choose to go underground."

Father John hopes that the Vatican will be transparent about any future actions and "think more about the underground church."

He expects the international community to pay more attention to the China Church and put pressure on the government.

Father Thomas, priest of an underground church in a big city, told ucanews.com that government officials had taken away underground priests and then spread fake news that they had transferred to the open church.

"Without seeing the priest holding a priest's card in his hand, we don't believe he has really joined the CCPA. Even if he has joined the association, we will persuade him to come back," he said.

Father Thomas said the government had tried to threaten him through his parents and his phone had been monitored.

"We fully understand the pressure priests can face because the government's brainwashing work is very horrible. While being detained, there will be 10 people talking to you. The less determined will turn to the government," he said.

Father Paul, another underground priest, told ucanews.com that authorities had seized his church and he is living in a Catholic's house.

He said 80 percent of clerics in his parish have transferred to the government-sanctioned church in the past few years.

On the provisional agreement, he said: "The content is confidential, indicating the church has secrets that it cannot let everyone know. However, because I could not oppose the pope, I choose to keep a low profile."

As to whether it should be made public, he believes that everyone is waiting for the pope's explicit provisions. "But at that time if my conscience cannot accept it, I will return to my hometown but still live a single life."

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