Monday, April 02, 2007

Tibet Catholics Defy China Government for Faith

MEILI MOUNTAIN, China; 2 April (Reuters) - Deep in the southwest mountains of officially atheist China, a small congregation of Tibetan Catholics still pledges its loyalty to the Pope after years of persecution and isolation.

This community in the mountains of Yunnan province that buttress Tibet itself has remained a bastion of the faith since Swiss missionaries converted their ancestors a century ago.

Their small church was levelled in the 1960s during the heyday of the Cultural Revolution and its priests chased away. Members of the congregation also recount how they and their families endured frequent raids by their Buddhist neighbours.

But despite decades of hardship, the Catholic faith still runs strong among the few hundred villagers.

"No matter what happens, I would never abandon my religion," said 72-year-old Catholic Ma Dilin.

"There is no conflict between us and other religions. Our religion was passed on to me by the older generation, and will be passed on to the next generation. It is never going to change. I hope the younger generation can follow Catholicism as I do."

Major religions suffered during the chaotic 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution when clergy and believers were persecuted, publicly mocked, jailed and even killed. China has since loosen restrictions on religions, but it remains tightly controlled.


The officially atheist Communist Party, which has run China since 1949, say religious freedom is enshrined in the constitution and citizens are free to attend ceremonies in churches, mosques and temples under state control.

Nearly all Tibetans are, unlike the residents of this mountain-bound village, Buddhists who honour the Dalai Lama as the chief protector of their beliefs.

But international rights groups have accused China of jailing Catholic priests and Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns who reject official controls on their faith.

Every Sunday, the small, unassuming wood and brick church fills with the sounds of hymns and prayer. The white-washed interior is decorated with photographs of Pope Benedict, images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary as well as red, Chinese-style paper lanterns and calligraphy.

The biggest obstacle for the small congregation is the lack of funding. Infrequent, and often secret, donations from abroad keep the church's door open and the local parish afloat.

The followers have remained loyal to the Vatican and the Pope, refusing to fall under the fold of the official Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

"The Roman Catholic Church is home to our souls. It is our saviour and the leader of our souls. From dawn to dark, we, the Catholics must help the Roman Catholic Church, and help our God," said local priest A Nisse.

Diplomatic relations between Beijing and the Vatican were severed in 1951, two years after the Communist Party took control of the country.

Official figures show the number of Christian Chinese has risen to 16 million from 10 million in the past six years but a recent survey by professors at a Shanghai University put the figure at 40 million.

Growing numbers of Chinese join underground churches that do not fall under government supervision, but they sometimes risk detention or arrest.

Here in the mountains, Rome seems far away. But priest A Nisse said he felt a powerful bond.

"I want to thank the Roman Catholic Church. We have maintained our loyalty throughout the years. I thank them for helping us and supporting us," he said.