Religious freedom in China
Harbin is located in the northernmost province of Heilongjiang in China. It is famous for its display of ice castles and other sculptures of ice and snow during the winter months. It is a “little Russia,” for Russians who lived there in the early decades of the 20th century left some quaint Orthodox churches and typical Russian-style buildings.
One Orthodox church in the center of the city is now a museum while another is used as a Catholic place of worship.
There are Catholics in that faraway city. In one of my visits there, I even met a Catholic priest who has been in the Philippines. He said he observed people in our churches “walking on their knees” along the aisles towards the altar. He must have been in Baclaran or Quiapo. Catholics in Harbin have been silently living their faith. It’s simply a matter of survival, for the Communist government has been trying to control the Church.
One controversial move of the Communist government is the illegitimate ordination of bishops. Now, they are determined to put a bishop in Harbin even without the approval of the Pope. They have even conscripted six bishops, all recognized by the Holy See, to perform the ordination. For more than a year, Catholics, the faithful, and the clergy have been opposing this move of the government. They have fasted and prayed, and several priests and leaders of the local community have even gone into hiding just so they will not be forced to participate in an illicit act.
Since the Communist takeover of China in the 1950s by Mao Zedong, the government has been trying to establish a Catholic Church independent of the Holy See. The government then has claimed the prerogative to appoint bishops. The whole matter for them is simply political and an internal affair of China. For the Catholic Church however, this is a matter of religious freedom and the separation of Church and State. In a recent statement of the Holy See on the ordination at Harbin, it reite-rated the constant teaching and practice of the Catholic Church for centuries throughout the world: “An episcopal ordination, like the present, without papal mandate, is directly opposed to the Office, granted by the Lord himself to Peter and his successors, as Head of the College of Bishops, Vicar of Christ and pastor of the Church Universal and damages the unity of the Church and the whole work of evangelization.”
There are other reasons why the Communist government wants to control the Catholic Church. China now is being dazzled by its economic growth, and the greed that this has generated has led the government to seize Church property and to pocket resources destined for the Church and the people. According to a survey by the Holy Spirit Center in Hong Kong, the government, under the guise of control of religious affairs, has already pocketed about 130 billion Yuan (about 13 billion euros).
Filipinos’ attention on relations with China these days are centered on the Scarborough Shoal issue. As a country in Asia with a majority Christian population, however, we need to be concerned with a more pressing issue, that is, religious freedom in China! Would it not be inconsistent to be shouting aloud about sovereignty and human rights if the more basic issue of religious freedom is not touched? The issue of religious freedom in China is not just an internal affair of that country. In an age of globalization, we realize how countries affect one another. If religious freedom is respected in China, all other rights will eventually follow. China then will view issues in their proper perspective and find the proper solutions, be they national, as in the case of the autonomy of Tibetans and Uygurs or international, as the case with Filipinos and Vietnamese on the Scarborough Shoal.