By Gerald Korson
Coadjutor Bishop Peter Fan Jianping of Tangshan, China, had a role to play in the Beijing Summer Olympics. He had a turn as a runner in the Olympic Torch Relay, sprinting through the Chinese province of Hebei in his Adidas cross-trainers a little more than a week before the opening ceremonies in Beijing.
A fellow man of the cloth, Pastor Cal Zhuohua, also did his part for the games. He and other Chinese prisoners spent more than 10 hours each day making Olympic soccer balls during his three-year sentence for the crime of printing and distributing Christian religious materials.
In the run-up to this month's Olympics, the communist government of China displayed a marked ambivalence regarding its poor human-rights record in general and its treatment of religious liberty in particular.
Seven years ago, when it first awarded the 2008 games to China's capital city, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said it expected that "openness, progress and development in many areas will be such that the situation will be improved."
Sure enough, by the time the games got under way on Aug. 8, there were some observable signs of positive change.
Beijing's Catholic churches were permitted to hire foreign-born priests to celebrate Masses in several different languages for Olympic tourists. Parish staffs and volunteers received training in hospitality, basic conversation in several languages and handling security concerns. The Olympic Village had its customary multi-faith worship center staffed by representatives of the world's major religious traditions. Christian groups were permitted to distribute more than 100,000 Bibles, New Testaments and bilingual Gospel booklets free of charge without going through the state-sanctioned shops.
Despite such welcome gestures, however, there also was ample evidence that the Chinese governmentÕs totalitarian grip on its people had not slipped by much.
In and around Beijing, most clergy of the "underground" Catholic Church --the outlawed Church in communion with Rome, as opposed to the government-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) -- have been forbidden to celebrate the sacraments or do pastoral work since late July, according to UCAN, the Asian Catholic news agency. Most have taken the hint by leaving for remote corners of China until the games are over, but there were reports that underground bishops in the Beijing area had been placed under house arrest.
State officials also blocked access to many Internet sites, including those of Vatican Radio and other international sources of Catholic news. In Hebei, the same province through which Bishop Fang carried the Olympic torch, the whereabouts of a Catholic priest and a layman, who were arrested in May for planning a pilgrimage to a Marian shrine, were still unknown as the Games got under way. The same is true of several underground Catholic priests and bishops who have been imprisoned for many years or who simply were arrested and have "disappeared."
In Fanzhi, a priest was beaten and two women had their arms broken when they requested the lawful return of confiscated church property. Then there's that ongoing brutal repression against Tibet and the crackdown against peaceful protests there led by Buddhist monks against Chinese rule.
The mixed signals from China on religious freedom are perhaps a symptom of the nation's delicate position as its leaders try to maintain control of its citizens even as it aspires to a position of greater power within the global economy.
"There is a logical animosity between an atheist-based regime and spiritual ideals," said Sister Beatrice Leung, a professor of international studies at the University of Hong Kong and an expert in the relationship between the Vatican and China. "But the Chinese rulers have to tolerate religion because they are wanting to be bigger players in international trade with the West, where religion is important."
She characterized church-state relations in China as "somewhat of a battle for the hearts of the people."
Leaders of the communist government "are starting to acknowledge that it's becoming more important to have a spiritual element in their society," Sister Leung told the Calgary Herald, daily newspaper of the capital of the Canadian province of Alberta. "But this generation of leaders doesn't have any experience dealing with religious leaders on a cordial basis. They only know suppression."
Still, there are scattered signs of a warming trend, a search for commonality undertaken by skillful diplomacy.
Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong, a frequent and vocal critic of the Chinese government, praised the government's rescue-and-relief efforts after the devastating May 12 earthquake in the Sichuan province that left nearly 70,000 dead and tens of thousands more missing, injured or homeless.
Cardinal Zen told reporters in early June that China had demonstrated "greater openness" to the world by accepting aid from other countries and allowing the foreign media to cover the story in Sichuan. China had previously refused foreign aid for natural disasters and banned on-site international news coverage.
"We will wholeheartedly support the leaders as they progress along the grand highway of respect for humanity,"the cardinal said at a prayer vigil the following day.
Meanwhile, Bishop Fang, the torchbearer, told UCAN that he believes his honors came as an official gesture recognizing "the Church's contribution to the society." His own diocese has donated some $22,000 worth of cash and materials for earthquake relief.
It remains to be seen whether the international attention focused on China during the Beijing Olympics will result in any long-term improvements in religious freedom and human rights -- or, for that matter, in better relations between the Vatican and China, or between the underground Catholic Church and the CCPA.
Sister Leung cautions patience. As a guest on CBC Radio during her visit to Calgary, she was reminded by host Jeff Collins of something she once said, a statement she stands by today:
"I believe religious freedom will come, but it must come slowly in China. It is like a bird in a cage: You cannot free the bird directly into the wilderness. It is better to first give it a bigger cage, then a house, to let it try out its wings."
Gerald Korson writes from Indiana.
"May they never be afraid"
Our Lady of Sheshan, sustain all those in China, who, amid their daily trials, continue to believe, to hope, to love. May they never be afraid to speak of Jesus to the world, and of the world to Jesus. In the statue overlooking the shrine you lift your Son on high, offering him to the world with open arms in a gesture of love. Help Catholics always to be credible witnesses to this love, ever clinging to the rock of Peter on which the Church is built. Mother of China and all Asia, pray for us, now and for ever. Amen!
--Pope Benedict XVI, from the last stanza of a prayer he wrote in his June 2007 letter to Chinese Catholics
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