Sunday, March 23, 2008

Chinese Government Bans Tibet Catholic Easter Service

(Photo: nave of the Catholic church in Cizhong, China, where Easter services are being curtailed by the Chinese government.)

It isn't just Buddhists whose religious freedom is being curtailed by the People's Republic of China. Chinese of all faiths, from Buddhists to Taoists to Falun Gong to Christians and others, face the same kind of government "editing" of their faith that Tibetan Buddhists do -- and now, there's news that China has even ordered many Tibetan area Catholics not to celebrate Easter today.

First, a quick background: When it seized power in 1949, China's Communist government, consistent with its atheistic philosophy, originally tried to extinguish religion altogether. However, it recognized fairly quickly that religion can't be completely suppressed -- and cleverly, if not wisely or laudably, shifted to a "co-opting" strategy instead. Probably the earliest example is Chairman Mao's famous "Little Red Book" of Communist aphorisms and rules for living: much of the book is nothing more than traditional Confucian proverbs, twisted to fit Mao's agenda. Sayings that Chinese grandparents had been repeating for hundreds of years suddenly seemed, to a new generation of Chinese, to support the Communist doctrine they were learning at school and elsewhere, helping Mao become as venerated, in the new State, as Confucius was in the old.

Similarly, the Chinese government co-opts all other forms of religion as well. Buddhist monks must disown the Dalai Lama and swear allegiance to the State over their religion before being allowed to study in monasteries. When the Dalai Lama, as is traditional, designated the successor to the Panchen Lama, Chinese authorities whisked the boy away, never to be seen again, and named their own "Panchen Lama." In a show of cynicism so transparent that it would be funny if it weren't so sad, a group of official "Living Buddhas" have even issued a statement supporting the government and condemning the protests in Tibet as the actions of drunk monks.

But such meddling isn't limited to Buddhists. On Easter, it is meet and proper to recall the plight of China's Christians, too. The Catholic Church is a prime example. In the 1950s -- at the same time as Maoists were clamping down in Tibet -- the Chinese government abolished the Catholic Church and replaced it with a "Patriotic Catholic Association," whose bishops are all state-appointed and which teaches loyalty to the State above loyalty to the Pope.

China's interference with Catholic worship is alive and well this Easter day, as well, in Rome as well as China. Pope Benedict, who has been trying to open dialogue with China over Catholic religious freedoms, instructed that the illustrations for the Way of the Cross procession in Rome today be done in Chinese style. He also apparently instructed the archbishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, to tone down the written meditations he wrote to accompany those illustrations, to omit any direct criticism of the Chinese government.

And now China -- newly-removed from the Bush Administration's list of human rights violators, awarded the right to host the Olympics this summer, which George Bush will visit soon no matter how it abuses its power in Tibet, and handled with kid gloves by the Catholic Church -- has ordered some Tibetan Catholics not to celebrate Easter this year:

CIZHONG, China (AFP) — The Tibetan Catholic Church in Cizhong, a Christian enclave on the threshold of the Himalayas, has seen its Easter services curbed after anti-Chinese riots in Lhasa caused the region's deadliest tensions in two decades.

As a result, this tiny community of less than 1,000 souls located in amid picturesque mountains in an overwhelmingly Buddhist area has been affected by the recent unrest where it matters the most for them -- religion. ***

This Easter has been especially important as Father Yao Fei, a short bespectacled ethnic Mongolian in his late 30s, only arrived in Cizhong in February.

This made him the first permanent priest to live here since French clergymen were expelled shortly after communist China was established in 1949.

Since then, Catholic priests were only periodically dispatched to Cizhong for special occasions such as Christmas and Easter....

However, following the deadly March 14 riots in Lhasa, police from Diqing Tibetan prefecture, in the northwest of Yunnan province, told church officials to restrict Easter services to fewer than 100 people.

They did not say why ....

"We are only expecting about 80 followers from (Cizhong) village to attend Easter services as the worshippers from other villages will not be allowed to come," Yao told AFP on Good Friday.

Understand: no protests have occurred in Cizhong. Cizhong isn't even located inside Tibet. The unrest in Tibet is directly related to China's interference with Tibetan Buddhism and has nothing to do with Catholicism or any other religion (though the Chinese government is now even accusing the Dalai Lama of "collaborating" with Muslims). There's no reason to fear this small village on the Mekong River, or its neighbors. And yet, a paranoid government that fears all religion uses unrest in Tibet as an excuse to bar Cizhong's first priest in 59 years from celebrating his first Easter service with the majority his parishioners. He is Risen, Indeed -- but not this year, for the faithful around Cizhong -- or so China hopes. (Of course, adherents of all faiths, and even those who adhere to no faith but who stand in awe of the human spirit, know otherwise.)

So why should Christian or Jewish or Unitarian or Muslim or atheist Americans care about persecution of Buddhist monks and nuns in Tibet? Because we have the imagination and compassion to care about people who are not like us -- but also, in case anyone needs a more practical reason, because persecution never stops at "the other"; it always creeps, cancer-like, to infect "us" as well. China is not only persecuting Buddhists and Christians and Muslims; ridiculously, it's even afraid of the Boy Scouts. John Donne famously, and accurately, wrote in Meditation XVII:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Finally, a political note, because politics is where ideals and action should intersect: it's hard to find anyone showing moral leadership on this issue. Sen. Dianne Feinstein wants us to go easier on China. All three Presidential candidates have issued written statements decrying events in Tibet and asking China to show restraint -- McCain's and Obama's fairly strongly worded, Clinton's weaker and talking more about herself than about the problem -- but all are "just words", not very different from the similar statement issued by President Bush, whose actions -- having China removed from the list of human rights violators, affirming he will travel to the Olympics no matter what happens in Tibet -- show his true level of concern.

I also asked Clinton's representatives directly, during a press conference, whether they would advocate returning China to the human rights violators list; they won't. She's far more interested in talking about her disputed role in the Northern Ireland peace talks -- which her campaign frankly admitted, in a press conference, is largely an effort to curry favor with Pennsylvania's large Irish Catholic community -- than she is in actually taking action for peace for Tibet's Buddhists -- or China's Catholics. I find that hypocritical, since Clinton has bragged so much about her commitment to peace processes and has criticized Obama so soundly for spouting "mere words" when that's all she appears willing to do with regard to China's suppression of religious freedom. (I've also written to the Obama campaign, asking about their position, and haven't received a reply.) So far the strongest position of any American politician has been taken by Nancy Pelosi, who is asking for an international investigation into the protests in Tibet.

It's reasonable to call all the candidates' local campaign offices and ask them to take a firmer stand -- to move beyond mere words. And it's also reasonable to contact China's embassy and consulate, and China's Olympic officials, to protest the treatment of Tibet's Buddhist, Cizhong's Catholics, and everyone else whose freedom to practice their faith is constrained by a paranoid and brutal regime. That contact information can be found here. Other information on Cizhong can be found here and here.

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