Saturday, April 09, 2005

Pope's Death Unites Chinese Catholics

By CHRISTOPHER BODEEN, Associated Press Writer

SHANGHAI, China - Flower-bedecked portraits of Pope John Paul II decorate the St. Ignatius Cathedral — Shanghai's main Roman Catholic church, but one run by a state-sanctioned body that rejects ties with Rome.

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On Saturday, thousands of mourners were expected at a government-approved memorial Mass, even though Beijing avoided sending an envoy to John Paul's funeral in a spat over the Vatican's relations with rival Taiwan.

John Paul's death united China's Catholics in mourning, at least temporarily blurring the line between official and underground churches and fueling hopes that Beijing might ease its rejection of any ties between believers and Rome.

The two sides have "come together in prayer and mourning," said one Catholic in Shanghai who asked to be identified only as Mary. "We hope the Chinese government will now be even more open."

Communist leaders ordered China's Catholics to cut ties with the Vatican in 1951. Churches run by the official China Patriotic Catholic Association claim 4 million followers; experts say as many as 12 million more worship in unofficial churches.

Despite the lack of official ties, the division between the Chinese church and the Vatican isn't clear cut. The Chinese church closely follows Vatican doctrine and regards the pope as a spiritual leader. Bishops named by China routinely ask Rome for confirmation — a status the Vatican has granted to all but 10 of the 72 official bishops.

Still, religion is a touchy subject, and parishioners who spoke to a reporter Friday asked not to identified by their Chinese names or even to have their church identified in case their comments angered communist officials. It's not an unfounded worry: China has arrested priests and harassed worshippers in crackdowns on the underground church.

State media promptly reported John Paul's death on April 2. But his funeral Friday wasn't shown on Chinese television and received only a one-sentence mention on the national evening news.

Parishioners in Shanghai said that at services after John Paul's death, they were permitted to sing a hymn praising him for the first time.

"There was no way (the government) could keep us from knowing and now they can't stop us commemorating," said a woman who asked to be identified only as Isabel, and who said her family's Catholic roots go back 14 generations.

Critics say Beijing might have missed an opportunity to forge better relations under a pope for whom reconciliation with Beijing was a cherished goal. The next pope, they say, is likely to be preoccupied with other matters.

A change in China's attitude might be spurred by the realization that poor ties with Rome have opened an avenue for Taiwan — Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian attended the pope's funeral.

"This may push Beijing to moderate its handling of Catholic issues," said Anthony Lam of the Holy Spirit Study Center, which is affiliated with the Roman Catholic diocese of Hong Kong. "I'm overall quite optimistic for the church in China."

Beijing says it will discuss official ties with the Vatican only if it cuts links with Taiwan and refrains from interfering in China's affairs. Vatican representatives have repeatedly indicated they were willing to switch diplomatic recognition if agreement can be reached on other issues — such as control of the church.

"The Vatican has just about met all of Beijing's demands," said Lam. "Maybe the Chinese government has to change their mind-set."

"We loved our pope dearly and he loved and cared for his people in China," said Mary, the Shanghai Catholic. "We want to be one with Rome."

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