Church properties under threat in northern China

HEBEI (UCAN): Catholics in China’s Hebei province reached an agreement with authorities after staging an overnight vigil in a bid to prevent their church from being demolished.

Resistance from priests and parishioners of Wugaozhuang Church of Guantao and other parishes in the Diocese of Handan, including occupying the church overnight, forced the government to promise compensation of 200,000 yuan ($221,850) and an alternative site to reconstruct their church.

On October 31, hundreds of Catholics, in Hebei province, gathered to safeguard the church as officials from the Bureau of Land and Resources and Public Security Department turned up at the village at 6.00am brandishing an order for the building’s demolition and the removal of its cross. Catholics from neighbouring villages also flooded in to support the church in a show of solidarity.

One 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.

The confrontation continued until late afternoon when an agreement was reached with government officials.

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

It was built on farmland purchased by the Church outside the village of Wugaozhuang because the old church building had become too small to meet their needs.

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One parishioner pointed out that the church’s construction had been approved by local government departments, including the Religious Affairs Bureau, the United Front Work Department and the Land Resources Bureau.

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

A diocesan priest who wished to remain anonymous, said relations between the diocese and the Religious Affairs Department have 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 concern among elements within central government about the growth of the diocese, adding 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.

According to another source, however, local Catholic officials were told that churches and crosses not officially registered after 2008 would be removed. It was suggested that about 24 structures had been earmarked for demolition by the authorities as of May 6 this year.

In recent weeks, Catholic churches and prayer spots in the Diocese of Yujiang, in Jiangxi province, and in Fuqing and Changle, in Fujian province, have also been closed, according to an AsiaNews report on October 31.

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Observers say the Handan incident and those in Jiangxi and Fujian are 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. 

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