China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2006/May

Church property in China

The Catholic Sacramentary has a section called Proper of Saints, which gives the prayers for the feast days of saints throughout the year. Yet we also find the dedication of the churches of Ss. Peter and Paul on November 18 and of two ancient basilicas in Rome: St. Mary Major on August 5, and St. John Lateran on November 9, plus the Chair of St. Peter, apostle, on February 22. How did stone edifices and a piece of furniture join the list of saints and angels?

During the days of the Roman Empire, people stood in the government assembly hall, or basilica. There was only one chair, reserved for the highest official. Everyone knew at a glance who was presiding. In the Book of Revelations, chapters 4-5, the scene is slightly different. The One seated on his throne shares some of his dignity with 24 elders sitting on their 24 thrones, while millions of angels stand and sing praise. A trace of Roman usage survives in the English phrase “to chair the meeting.” The Chinese equivalent is zhuxi (主席) literally “lord mat” from the days when Chinese sat on the floor, as is still the custom in Japan. “Chair” in Latin was sedes, later “seat” in English. Over the centuries, it was chopped down to “see” as in the Holy See, the authority of the successor of St. Peter.

The first small bands of Christians met in private houses, such as the Church that met in the house of Aquila and Prisca (1 Cor. 16:19). Numbers grew, along with persecution. The first “underground churches” were in the catacombs of Rome. Yet in many places, there were long stretches of peace between government campaigns of harassment, and Christians began to build churches in the style of Jewish synagogues. Late in the third century, Diocletian launched an all-out persecution from one end of his empire to the other and many of those churches were destroyed or confiscated. In 314, Christianity became legal. Emperor Constantine went so far as to build some churches and larger basilicas. The Church finally had clear legal title to its property and could celebrate its freedom by having a high profile in society.

Enthusiastic reopening of churches

Before visiting China, I was never able to feel enthusiastic when celebrating the anniversary of a church building. But inside the mainland, I met Catholics who had first-hand experience of losing church property. A few churches in China were demolished, and many more had been used for warehouses. After China began reforming and opening in 1979, first a few and then many churches were restored to their congregations. The faithful swept, moped and dusted, and dug up old vestments and altar vessels for the priests and bishops returning from labor camp. On the day of re-dedication, the building was not as beautiful as it had been when it had statues, stations of the cross and stained glassed windows, yet everyone rejoiced to use a place of worship again. Hong Kong and overseas visitors have been deeply moved by these stories.

But not all church properties have been returned yet and real estate disputes continue to make the news. There were four categories of church property in 1949.

Catholic Villages

In the century before 1949, Protestant missionaries had more success in the cities, while Catholicism grew largely in rural areas. Ceremonies in the local temple on a few feast days during the year were the focus of village social life and every family contributed something to the prayers and entertainment. But Catholics could not donate to events sponsored by the folk religion and they had to avoid non-Christian ceremonies. Thus, they were isolated from their neighbors and the village was divided. The bad feelings sometimes led to bloodshed, as during the Boxer Uprising in 1900. Missionaries bought enough farmland to resettle a hundred or more families and a new village grew up around the church. This happened more often in northern China. In southern China, surname villages sprung up. Those named Wang, Li, Zhang and so on, segregated themselves into villages where everyone had the same family name. Distant cousins grouped together to provide mutual protection during a time of growing social disorder and lawlessness.

During the land reform of the early 1950s, the property deeds of the landlords were burned. Since then all land has belonged to the people, with titles held either by the central government or local administration. Even today, there is no such thing as individually owned land in China. A long-term lease is the closest anyone can come to having title to a piece of land. The People’s Communes have come and gone. The descendants of the original Catholic villagers still live and farm the same land as their grandparents or great-grandparents did and the small village church is back in service as a place of prayer. Some of the old churches collapsed and have since been rebuilt. As a general rule, Catholic villages do not feature in property disputes.

Prime urban real estate and rural claimants

Especially in the old days, the farmers were poor and could not support a priest. So religious congregations bought buildings in big cities, either in Beijing or in one of the coastal seaports and collected rent. They sent the money to their missions in the countryside. In 1948 and 1949, when it became obvious how the situation on the battlefield was shifting, overseas bishops transferred property titles to local churches. Thus it happened, for example, that real estate in Tianjin city passed to the ownership of the inland diocese of Taiyuan in Shanxi. When the economy was stagnant, it did not matter much who owned the buildings. But now urban renewal has driven property values up, there is big money to be made in demolishing old structures for new skyscrapers. If someone hires young thugs to evict the tenants – an all too frequent occurrence in China today – then these disputes often turn bloody. While foreign news media often interpret the conflict as religious persecution, simple greed is the real motive. But greed is ugly enough!

Buildings used for social services

The Church established schools, printing presses, clinics, hospitals and orphanages. When the foreign administrators and experts were sent home and the crosses and statues were removed, the buildings continued to provide space for the same type of service to the wider society. The original work has continued under different management. The transfer was accomplished a lifetime ago and the Church could not staff these institutions if they were handed back tomorrow. Yet, if an abandoned school is to be demolished and replaced with upscale apartments or shops, a dispute can start, as in Xi’an last November (Sunday Examiner, 4 December 2005).

Buildings intimately connected to worship

Churches, rectories and convents and their equivalents in other religions, had all been confiscated by the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 at the latest. When priests and sisters were released from confinement, where were they supposed to live? At least some sites for worship had to revert to religious use. In July 1980, the State Council issued Document 188. It encouraged the return of many religious properties and even recognised the need to let aging monks and nuns, clergy and sisters, repossess some extra sites for rental income. Document 188 was a secret decree that has only recently become available in English. Churches did get a fair amount of property back quite quickly, but then the rate of return slowed to a crawl.

On a positive note, a Catholic in China once read an article from Hong Kong with photos of old church property. She took the article to the city administration and they recognised an authentic old map and photos, so they returned the buildings to the diocese. The city government had lost some records during the chaos of the 1960s.

Looking to the future

It is safe to predict that property will continue to be contested. Not everyone will settle for token compensation or accept a remote, rocky field in exchange for prime real estate near a city centre. Some people say, “An inch of land, an inch of gold” yi cun tu yi cun jin (一寸土一寸金). This applies to land leased for 40 or 70 years just as well as to land purchased outright. China’s population may peak at 1.6 billion in 30 years, then begin a gradual decline, but even 70 years from now China will have at least as many people as it has this year. Farmers are moving to the city and highways are removing fields from cultivation. The only way to build is up. In some cities, old church structures have been replaced by a high-rise with shops to rent, living quarters for priests and sisters, parish halls and a church with traditional pews, pulpit and altar, all on separate floors. When the local church, Religious Affairs Bureau and property developer can all agree to a fair deal, then everyone profits.

However, there are a distressing number of reports of corruption, intimidation and even physical assault associated with China’s urban renewal. For years the problem has been building up and to be realistic, it will not disappear next year. The Church in China is in solidarity with the broad masses of the people, in that both have to worry about becoming victims of unscrupulous and greedy dealers out to make money on real estate. This situation is by no means unique to China. We can at least pray for Church leaders in China. May the Holy Spirit give them wisdom, courage and perseverance as they seek justice for their property claims, just as in the parable where the widow seeking redress from the judge (Lk. 18:1-8).