By Emily Stimpson
"The Chinese government is like a fox that goes up to the chicken, says 'Happy New Year,' then devours the chicken."
Those are the words of one of China's underground bishops, words used to explain the difference between the way the Chinese communist government talks about human rights and religious freedom and the way it actually acts.
The words were spoken to Franciscan University of Steubenville theology professor Mark Miravalle during a secret meeting he had with the bishop earlier this summer in China. Miravalle traveled there to meet with friends working with the underground Church, and during his stay, he traveled across the continent, visiting with underground priests, religious, missionaries and other persecuted Christians. (There are two Catholic Churches in China -- one patriotic and one underground. The patriotic church is run by the government and doesn't recognize the Vatican.)
Upon his return, Miravalle, who is also the author of nearly a dozen books, an internationally recognized expert on Marian apparitions and the president of Vox Populi Maria Mediatrice ("Voice of the People for Mary Mediatrix"), recounted the stories of those Chinese Catholics in his latest book, "The Seven Sorrows of China" (Queenship, $8.95).
Recently, OSV spoke with Miravalle about his experiences in China and the state of the underground Church.
Our Sunday Visitor: With Beijing selected to host the 2008 Olympic Games, there's been talk of a new openness in China, about the presence of more freedom and individual autonomy. How does that talk compare to what you witnessed during your travels?
Mark Miravalle: It would be a great misconception to think there's any significant new openness to religious freedom in China. The government may be more open to Western capitalism, but the level of persecution of women, children and religious is every bit as high as in the past. The government's policy of forced abortion continues unchecked and so does the hounding of priests and religious who refuse to cooperate with the Chinese-run Church.
During my stay there, I met with an underground bishop who spent 20 years in prison. I asked him if I should avoid mentioning that number in my book; I didn't want to give his identity away. But he said not to worry -- all of the underground bishops had spent an average of 20 years imprisoned by the government.
Then just last week [Sept. 9] another bishop died in a Chinese prison. His body was cremated by the government in the middle of the night, less than six hours after he died. Why didn't the government want that body examined? Can you imagine if that happened to an American bishop?
OSV: You mentioned forced abortion. Many people, even in the West, deny that's taking place. Did you talk with any women who experienced this?
Miravalle: Yes, several, plus they told me others' accounts as well. There were some women who went to the hospital nine months pregnant, in labor, but didn't have the government certificate necessary to give birth, either because it was their second child or because they were unwed mothers. When they arrived, looking for help, poison was injected into their abdomen to kill the baby.
Other women talked about how when they returned home from the hospital with a second child they found their homes burned down. One woman spoke about how when she returned home, the house was intact but every piece of furniture had been removed including doors and windows. The only thing remaining was the table.
Another mother talked about running out the back door and climbing a fence to avoid the population police who were coming to take her to get an abortion. It's absolutely grisly.
OSV: How does persecution like that impact the strength of the underground Church?
Miravalle: It produces heroes and martyrs, as well as people who struggle due to lack of formation. The situation is difficult. I met one girl, a Catholic, who was surprised to hear there was a Bible. That's the type of formation some receive due to the persecution.
Underground communities are spread out across the country, but so are the official patriotic churches. Even though Pope Benedict XVI permits Catholics to receive the sacraments in the patriotic churches even that requires some Catholics to drive hours. This is a country with 11 different time zones. It's massive. So getting the sacraments, let alone good formation, is very difficult.
OSV: What about the heroes?
Miravalle: That's the flip side of the persecution, this fire-tried remnant that could teach all of us lessons in holiness. One person takes in children who have been rejected by federally run orphanages. If a child is terminally ill and there's nothing they can do for him, the [federally run] orphanage staff puts him in a back room where he'll starve. So, this person I met goes and collects those children and loves them until they die.
I met another person who, while publicly having a teaching job, is privately evangelizing, spreading the faith. There are also many priests and religious who go throughout the underground Church network giving information, help and support, especially in the areas cracked down on by the government.
I met one priest who has been on the run for 10 years. He's been chased through buses and intersections and even spent one night in a family's outdoor latrine while the police had the house surrounded. He used to be a seminary rector.
Then there are people who smuggle information to the papal nuncio in Hong Kong so that he can know what the real situation is in the provinces. In many ways, the Church there reminds me of the early Church -- there are many hidden saints willing to risk life and limb for the faith.
OSV: Are there any pockets where the Chinese government hasn't managed to suppress the open practice of the faith?
Miravalle: Very few, but they do exist. I visited one province where there are villages with large families. I interviewed the priests of these parishes and asked how they were beating the one-child policy. One said, "The bishop will die for the priests, the priests will die for the bishops and the people will die for both."
There's such unity there that there are too many people to wipe out. Also, these pockets where the Church has had some minor victories are places soaked with martyrs' blood. That makes a difference.
OSV: What sustains the Chinese people's faith?
Miravalle: I put that same question to a priest I met at a Catholic holy place. He said, "The Eucharist, the blood of the martyrs and Our Lady. Our Lady will bring us through everything." You also find a tremendous loyalty to the Holy Father.
OSV: What can the West do to help?
Miravalle: First we have to pray. The underground bishop said financial pressure can help, but far more important are the prayers that come from the West. Praying for our Christian brothers and sisters under persecution is our compelling Christian responsibility.
Secondly, we need to petition our government to act as it did in the past, to place human-rights concerns first, not economic concerns. So much Western money is invested in China, and the Chinese own a large percentage of the U.S. debt. Because of that, the West seems to have lost interest in finding out the truth, let alone doing anything to change the situation. We've given them Most Favored Nation trading status and the Olympics. This only makes the situation worse. The government has no incentive to change.
Emily Stimpson is a contributing editor to OSV.
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