Chinese Party Congress Skirts the Issue of Religious Liberty

But Interest in the Faith Is Growing, Says a Journalist and Missionary

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ROME, DEC. 5, 2002 ( Will the recent congress of the Chinese Communist Party bring China’s believers more freedom — or more repression?

ZENIT posed this question to Father Bernardo Cervellera of the Pontifical Institute of Foreign Missions, until recently director of the Vatican news agency Fides. He worked for many years in Hong Kong.

Interest in Christianity is growing in certain circles, and Father Cervellera said this will determine the response of the Communist regime. The party is doing everything possible to recruit such people into its ranks.

In the Italian newspaper Avvenire of Nov. 15, Father Cervellera was quoted as saying: «The 16th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party [CCP], closed the previous day, will pass into history for opening the doors of leadership to the wealthy.»

The theory behind the «three representations» of Chinese President Jiang Zemin, accepted by the party congress, now calls for the CCP to be «representative of the most productive forces» of the country, namely, of businessmen and professionals.

The rich must not be seen as opponents of the working class, Jiang said in his long address to the congress.

«In this context,» Father Cervellera said, «we hoped the congress would say something about religions. In this wind of change, some affirmation on religious liberty might have been made. However, there was none. In Jiang Zemin’s 60-page address and among the topics of the congress there were none [to be found], apart from the reinforcement of the economy and the party.»

The only thing one can see is «a phrase in which the government proposes to give ‘equal importance to material and spiritual culture,'» said Father Cervellera. «This is in keeping with tradition.»

«The congress’ indifference stands in contrast to the real interest in religion found in society and in the Communist Party itself,» the missionary and journalist said.

Last December, «in Shenzhen, Pan Yue, subdirector of the state Office for Structural Reforms, called energetically for the party to abandon its Marxist view of religion as the ‘opium of the people,'» the priest continued. «He emphasized that religious interest is ‘philosophical and not political,’ hence, it should be outside the tight control of the party.»

Father Cervellera continued: «In the same period, Jiang Zemin suggested that not only capitalists, but believers, could become party members. In his address to a congress on religions, he said that ‘religions will [continue to] exist under socialism for a long time.’ And, after referring to the atheistic principles of the party, he added: ‘To ask religions to adapt to socialism does not mean that we ask religious personnel and believers to abandon their faith.'»

However, none of this was expressed at the congress, which had such an impact on the media in China, Father Cervellera added.

«In this way, the theory of representations itself runs the risk of being falsified,» he said. «On the one hand, it affirms that the party, in addition to being the voice of the rich, must be the voice of the most dynamic cultural forces and of the interests of the majority of the Chinese population. On the other hand, however, religion is precisely one of these» most dynamic forces.

«According to official data, there are 100 million believers in China,» Father Cervellera added. «In reality, there are many more. Some studies say that over 60% of Chinese have some kind of devotion or faith. However, while entrepreneurs have a free hand to invest, produce, fire workers, purchase, etc., […] religions, including official religions, suffer under severe restrictions.»

«Religious persecution, with arrests and convictions, strikes some thousands of clandestine faithful, but humiliates hundreds of millions of faithful, obliged to see that the party state is an enemy of their faith,» he revealed.

«A clear word at the congress on religious liberty was necessary, but now the party trusts only in the god of the economy, in a ‘materialist civilization,'» the priest observed. «And yet religious liberty would be expedient, even for the economy itself: It would inspire sympathy abroad, creativity and solidarity at home, and become a source of morality for a society characterized by a high rate of suicides and a very high rate of corruption.»

Asked about the current situation of Catholics, Father Cervellera responded: «Persecution affects not only the underground Church, but also takes place in the official Church, because bishops, priests and faithful are under increasing observation.»

«Political sessions to teach the party’s religious policy are increasing, and visits from the Office for Religious Affairs to seminaries, bishops and Catholic assemblies are ever more frequent. The party wants to give the impression that everything is under observation,» he added.

«The most important fact is that, since the canonization of the Chinese martyrs [on Oct. 1, 2000], it is increasingly evident that the official Church and the underground Church are one same thing,» Father Cervellera said. «The regime is worried because the ‘patriotic Church’ and the underground Church collaborate in various areas of China.

«It must be kept in mind that there is an enormous interest in the Catholic faith on the part of young people, intellectuals and professionals. It is precisely those professionals, entrepreneurs, that the party is trying to absorb in [its own] power structure.»

«These people are searching for the meaning of life,» he added. «They ask themselves: What is the sense of our wealth? What is the sense of the frenzied work to which we are subjected? And they ask questions about the faith.»

«They ask what is the foundation of society, with tired ideologies and unbridled capitalism that brings divisions in families and lack of values in young people,» the priest added.

«In this context, the Catholic Church is growing,» he said. «There is a real boom of conversions to Catholicism. We estimate that there are 100,000 new baptisms every year. Over the past 52 years of Communist domination, [the numbers of] Catholic faithful have quadrupled, increasing from 3 million in 1949, to 12 million today.»

The priest concluded with an appeal: «China is a country that missionaries and the universal Church must include in their projects and prayers; it must not be forgotten that there are priests and bishops who are either in prison or in concentration camps, or cannot carry out their activities.»

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