Beijing Faces a Faith Explosion

ROME, JUNE 28, 2007 ( A new documentary, “God in China. The Struggle for Religious Freedom,” explores the best-kept secret of China: religion. According to the documentary, China is going through a massive resurgence of religious belief that the authorities of the atheistic regime are neither able to control nor contain.

Written and directed by Raphaela Schmid, director of the Becket Institute, and produced by Yago de la Cierva of Rome Reports TV News Agency, the documentary was previewed by students, professors and journalists in Rome.

With its new office in Rome, the Becket Institute is exploring ways to go beyond the conventionally academic means to educate a wider public about religious freedom.

“One such way is making topical television documentaries about religious freedom, based on the situation in various countries,” Schmid said.

While not a film exclusively about Catholic issues, the China documentary offers unprecedented insight into both sides of the divide between the “official,” or the government-controlled Patriotic Association of Catholic Churches, and the “underground” Church that remains loyal to Rome.

The film takes viewers across China where they meet believers of different faiths struggling for religious freedom, walking a thin line between toleration and persecution. In some places they discover new freedom, in others they suffer state control and even persecution.

From a rural underground parish to a clandestine seminary, from a state-sponsored Buddhist Academy to a mosque at the heart of Beijing’s Muslim community, Chinese people from all walks of life candidly tell their stories and offer their assessment of what the future may hold for them.

The film coincides with the first official admission that at least 30% of all Chinese declare themselves to be members of a religion. More surprisingly, 20 million of the 60 million members of the Communist Party confess belonging to a religion.

It also makes clear the limitations various religious communities, whether state-controlled or independent, continue to face. “During the Cultural Revolution, faith communities were driven underground,” Schmid explains. “In 1978, Deng Xiaoping’s liberalization program began to open doors for the return of religion to Chinese public life.”

Schmid said that some properties were restored and religious rights reaffirmed in the recently revised constitution. But even this limited sort of freedom came at a price: obeying the directives of the state-run Bureau for Religious Affairs.

In the case of the Catholic Church, the Catholic Patriotic Association was founded in an attempt to bring Catholic Church teaching in line with Communist party ideals.

“Those who refused to compromise had to remain underground,” Schmid said. Throughout the documentary, viewers are made aware of the dangers that still exist. Christians who do not surrender their faith to government directives are in danger of being arrested. Mass is celebrated secretly, and makeshift churches can be torn down by local authorities from one day to the next.

Schmid said that while the underground Church is less vigorously persecuted today, there are still many bishops and priests in prison. In addition to more obvious issues of freedom, the documentary explores more subtle problems, such as making the teachings of the Church accessible to the faithful.

“It’s important to understand that joining the Patriotic Association is not a mere formality for Chinese Catholics,” Schmid explained.

“The problem is that, under state control, the Church cannot speak up on important issues such as abortion, the one child policy, human rights, and the death penalty — and for this they must have leaders who do not acquiesce to a mutilated version of the faith, accommodated to the demands of the state.”

Reflecting on her experience in China, Schmid said, “What struck me most during the filming of this documentary in China was the generosity and kindness of the people we met, particularly those who did so at great personal risk.”

The film on China is the team’s second venture. The first project was about religious freedom in Turkey and was filmed shortly before Benedict XVI’s visit there last November.

* * *

Learning Peace in Bethlehem

Within the Israeli-built wall that segregates Bethlehem from its neighboring communities, Bethlehem University of the Holy Land is a haven for some 2,500 students.

The university, supported by the Vatican’s Congregation for Eastern Churches and staffed by the De LeSalle Christian Brothers, is the only Catholic Christian institution of higher learning in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Brother Daniel Casey, vice chancellor and chief executive officer of Bethlehem University, was among the 100 or so members of the Vatican agency that coordinates funding to Eastern Catholic Churches that met in Rome last week for their annual meeting. The agency, known by its Italian acronym ROACO, is under the Congregation for Eastern Churches.

Founded in 1973, the university opened almost a decade after Pope Paul VI’s historic visit to the region when Palestinians expressed their desire for a Catholic University in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza.

Throughout its 30-year history, the Christian brothers, educational leaders, and the local Church have all supported the university and the ever-increasing numbers of students who receive practical training and an education in an atmosphere of true Christian dialogue.

Despite the recent infighting between Fatah and Hamas, and increased tensions in the Holy Land, Brother Casey said the culture and ethos of Bethlehem remains Christian.

“Bethlehem is in a unique position, in that it is the town that Jesus was born in, and the Christian population here, along with the two neighboring towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, is nearly a majority,” Brother Casey said.

“It is very different here than in Gaza where the number of Christians is infinitesimal,” he added.

Christian-Muslim dialogue is a high priority in the region, said the vice chancellor. The university and other area agencies educate both Christian and Muslim students to know and understand each other, know their religions, and to work together. “I believe we are successful at this,” Brother Casey said.

There are very encouraging signs, he added. People in the area respect the university’s Christian ideals and long-standing traditions. “We still adhere to a Sunday Christian day of worship. We are one of the few places that is closed on Sunday and open on Friday, the Muslim day of worship,” Bother Casey said.

Moreover, Christian and Muslim students actively participate in their faiths and attend worship services. The university Mass is well attended. The Orthodox Christians also hold regular services, and a room for prayer is provided for the university’s Muslim population.

Benedict XVI has expressed deep concern for the Christians and others in the entire Middle East. In addresses both to ROACO as well as the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, the Pope urged both respect and charity as principles for dialogue.

Against a backdrop of tension that pervades the whole region, Brother Casey said that the university does its best to maintain normalizing influence.

“There is a definite fear no matter where you live. In casual conversation I often hear people express gratitude for another day but unease at what the night will bring,” Brother Casey remarked. While fear is inevitable, the university continues to hold international conferences, regular academic sessions, and to turn away applicants that exceed its capacity.

The past year presented special challenges. The crippling embargo, recently lifted, prevented the Palestinian Authority from providing much-needed aid to all of the region’s institutions, including universities.

But, Brother Casey said, grants provided through UNESCO by the World Bank and Saudi Arabia allowed the university to continue to operate. “We did not experience the dire financial consequences that other sectors did,” Brother Casey said. “Hundreds of families in the area had no regular income.”

Students at the university also face unique challenges on a regular basis. Surrounded on all sides by the Israeli wall, most Palestinian towns, including the small town of Bethlehem, are virtual prisons. Students traveling to school from outside of Bethlehem are subject to random gate closures, military harassment and security checks that can cause long delays.

“I’ve experienced this myself, even as a foreigner,” Brother Casey said. “There are people who have not been out of Bethlehem for five years. Living in Bethlehem is like living in a prison.”

“This has an awful effect on people,” he added. Brother Casey believes the violence the world witnesses among Palestinians is oftentimes a reaction to what is happening in their own lives.

“Young men who have no opportunity for employment, who have not made university admission, have absolutely nothing to do. They are naturally angry at their lot and are prey to the political situation. It breeds a violent reaction,” Brother Casey said.

In addition to fostering positive relations among young people of different faith backgrounds, the university offers hope to many young people. As always, Brother Casey said Palestinians are looking for the way forward. With the lifting of the embargo and another new government, he said there is some hope.

“The idea of prayer has never been so pertinent as now,” he said. “I hope people will pray for peace in the Holy Land.”


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