With officials tackling the pandemic, life has become easier for underground churches

UCA News reporter 
April 8, 2020

A police officer wearing a face mask stands guard at Tianhe Airport after it was reopened on April 8 in Wuhan in China’s Hubei province. (Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP)

China has relaxed a crackdown on unofficial religious groups amid the intense fight against Covid-19, but some Christian leaders feel the freedom could be short-lived.

Since this year’s Chinese New Year, which fell on Jan. 25, the harassment of underground Christians has eased as most officials have been engaged in fighting the raging pandemic, said Father Paul, a priest of the underground church in Yunnan province.

The crackdown on unapproved churches continued unabated even after September 2018 when the Vatican and China signed an agreement on the appointment of bishops.

The crackdown aimed to force the Catholic Church loyal to the Vatican, known as the underground church, to become part of the state-approved official church, Christian leaders said.

In the past two years, authorities have not allowed Christian groups to post customary spring messages with Christian blessings or prayers on the entrances of their churches or houses, said Father Paul.

“If Catholics post such messages on churches or houses, governmental agents will tear them off,” the priest said.

However, during this new year, “local Catholics posted the spring couplets and they were not torn off. Maybe the officials were busy fighting the epidemic,” Father Paul said.

The Covid-19 pandemic was first reported in Wuhan city in Hubei province in late December. By mid-January, the entire Chinese bureaucracy was busy fighting the disease that has officially killed some 3,300 people in China.

Teresa Yan, an underground Catholic in Shenyang, said “it may be possible the officials see no need to regulate. People are closed up in their own homes because of the pandemic. Priests can’t go anywhere, and no sacraments can be administered.”

Joseph He, another Catholic of an underground group in Jiangsu, said that after a lockdown was recently relaxed in their area, a priest celebrated Mass at his house during the day. “That was not possible earlier. Priests were celebrating Mass in secret, mostly at night,” he said.

Father Ma of the Henan Church’s underground group returned to his hometown just before the lockdown and used the opportunity to celebrate Mass and conduct Bible classes to Christians in the village.

“Everyone in the village knows each other well. After the village was closed, activities were relatively freer, and no one could get out anyway. Government officials did not enter the village either,” the priest said.

He said they had a church but the government closed it down. “So we found a place to celebrate Mass, but it was also constantly under state surveillance. Now we have no fixed place. We celebrate Mass at homes of parishioners,” he said.

‘Relaxation is not policy’

The relaxation that Catholics felt in individual events cannot be a policy change of the state, warned Chan Shun-hing, a professor in the department of religion and philosophy at Hong Kong Baptist University.

The easing of surveillance and leaving Christian actions unchecked were the results of the state lacking thousands of officials who were needed to deal with the pandemic, the Christian scholar said.

He warned that after normalcy returns to social life, the underground church will be targeted again with stricter surveillance.

“Understand the political system. It cannot leave the underground free. Now, the workforce is temporarily transferred, but the problem still exists,” Chan said.

Since underground churches are now relatively free, priests could think of teaching Christians about public health, personal hygiene or encouraging and strengthening them to help one another.

If priests can even lead parishioners in a humanitarian role to help those in need, “that can become a good testimony too even if they do it without declaring them to be Christians,” he said.

Chan said many criticized the way the government handled the virus, accusing the state of violating basic human rights such as freedom of speech and communication, which exacerbated the epidemic. Within the party itself, some began to challenge the autocracy of President Xi Jinping.

If such a situation continues and critics gain strength, “there is a possibility of the political policies of the Chinese Communist Party experiencing some shake.”

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