Catholics attempting to save church win concessions from Chinese authorities

Protesting Catholics from Handan Diocese in China’s Hebei province protest against the authorities wanting to demolish their church under the pretext that it had no building permit. (Photo supplied)

Protesting Catholics in China’s Hebei province have reached an agreement with authorities after staging an overnight vigil in a bid to prevent their church from being demolished.

Strong resistance from priests and members of Wugaozhuang Church of Guantao and other parishes, in Handan Diocese, that included occupying the church overnight, forced the government to promise compensation of 200,000 yuan (US$28,400) and an alternative site to reconstruct their church.

The standoff began early on Oct. 31 when officials from Guantao county’s Bureau of Land and Resources and Public Security Department turned up at the church to tear it down.

The priest and parishioners refused to leave the church and their protest was later joined by priests and members of other parishes in a show of solidarity. They also appealed to communities around the world to support their fight.

A parishioner at the standoff said the confrontation began in the morning when parishioners prevented access to the church’s compound.

“Local police [then] blockaded the scene and prohibited anyone from entering or leaving. Even food was not allowed in to coerce the priests and church members into giving up the protest,” the parishioner said.

Watch video of police stopping food being sent into the church compound.

In the afternoon, almost all the priests in Handan Diocese arrived at the scene to support and negotiate with the officials.

These negotiations went on into the night, while church members took turns to stand guard in case police tried to remove them, the witness said.

Finally, the authorities promised to provide an alternative piece of land for reconstruction and 200,000 yuan in compensation.

The priests also demanded the new land be given immediately. Demolition of the church began later but it was not clear whether the new land had been given provided.

Building permit

Authorities said the church, which was officially consecrated and opened on the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on Aug. 15, 2018, had to be pulled down because it did not have a necessary permit.

The church was built on farmland purchased by the Church outside the village of Wugaozhuang, following a growth in the number of parishioners, which meant the old church was too small to meet their needs.

However, according to a local source, the Guantao Bureau of Land and Resources, and other agencies, objected and ordered the church’s demolition because a Religious Affairs Department certificate allowing the site to be used for religious activities had not been obtained.

This came despite the parish priest seeking permission from the Religious Affairs Bureau, the United Front Work Department and the Bureau of Land and Resources to build the church.

“They verbally agreed to allow the new church’s construction, but then demanded its destruction under the pretext of it having no official permits,” the source said.

Watch video of the church being demolished here.

A Handan Diocese priest who wished to remain anonymous, said relations between the diocese and the Religious Affairs Department has been relatively harmonious, and many churches were built following verbal agreements.

“Some churches didn’t go through the proper channels,” he admitted.

The priest said the likely motive behind the move was elements within central government concerned about the growth of the diocese, saying other churches in the diocese have also been targeted without official notification.

“They dismantle churches without providing any official documents. Instead they simply verbally convey the wishes of the central government,” the priest said.

The confrontation follows church closures in Jiangxi and Fujian provinces in recent weeks.

Observers say the Handan incident and also those in Jiangxi and Fujian were the likely result of new religious laws that came into force in February 2018, in which all churches and crosses constructed without proper documentation after 2008 would be targeted for demolition.

Father Peter, a priest from another Hebei Diocese, said that if the government sticks to its guns, it will not only deal the Church a terrible blow, but also stoke religious tensions that could bring about social unrest.