Mindong’s underground churches are being pushed to join the “Patriotic Association”. (ABC News: Ziyuan Wang)
On a windy evening in the hills of Mindong in the south-eastern Chinese province of Fujian the faithful are gathering for a service at one of the many underground churches.
This is the Catholic heartland of China and the followers here pledge loyalty to the Pope and the Vatican, not the Chinese Government and its sponsored church called the Patriotic Church.
The Catholics of Mindong are in silent rebellion against a deal that is expected within months.
It will re-establish relations between China and the Vatican that were cut by the Communist Party 70 years ago.
China wants more power to choose bishops and the Vatican wants a greater stake and access in what could soon be the biggest Christian country in the world.
There are an estimated 100 million Christians in China but most are Protestants.
Catholics in China number about 12 million and are split down the middle between the Patriotic Church and the underground Church who fear they will lose their religious rights in the landmark deal.
Underground Bishops operate without Government approval
The underground Catholics at Mindong are in the firing line and more than 1,000 turned up in act of strength and defiance at last Wednesday’s service.
Their Vatican-appointed Bishop, Guo Xijin, was detained at the start of holy week by Chinese authorities. He will not be celebrating Easter mass and has been taken on an “enforced holiday”.
Instead, the Chinese Authorities have told the faithful at Mindong they will install their own leader, Bishop Zhan Silu. The locals will not accept him and the Vatican has previously declared his consecration illegal.
So far the Chinese Government has appointed seven Bishops but up to 40 Rome-backed underground Bishops operate without Government approval.
Privately the Mindong parishioners told the ABC “they can’t survive without Bishop Guo and they want him back”. They have prayed for his safe and speedy return.
For the moment Father Zhu Ruci, Bishop Guo’s deputy, has taken on the church leadership.
“We follow the Pope and the Vatican so the Government doesn’t recognise us and regards us as illegal. But now we’re concerned about compromises the Vatican may make,” he said.
“We hope they don’t sacrifice us and betray us for this deal.”
It has been reported that the Vatican asked Bishop Guo to stand aside for China-appointed Bishop Zhan Silu.
Father Zhu Ruci said he was adamant they would not accept any deal that takes away their rightful leaders and religious freedoms.
He has already been jailed twice for a total of three years and is prepared to go to prison again for his beliefs.
“I’d rather go to prison. When I was in prison, I told them, ‘If you want me to change my belief, or to abandon my principle, I have to say sorry I can’t’,” he said.
Mindong parishioners afraid to speak out
Many of the parishioners in Mindong were afraid to speak out as they do not want to be taken and detained like Bishop Guo, but 52-year-old businesswoman Luo Yanyu choose to speak for the faith.
Her family has been Catholic for four generations and, like most, they suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution under Chairman Mao Zedong.
Luo Yanyu remembers reading the Bible in a locked room under the bedsheets every night with her parents.
Many churches in China had murals destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. (ABC News: Ziyuan Wang)
She said she was not criticising the Government but believes true Catholics can only have one loyalty.
“We will continue this faith forever,” she said.
“My children and my grandchildren believe in God.
“We will expand to make the church more glorious to let our Catholic faith be free forever.”
A history of struggle and bloodshed
The underground Catholic Church in China is set for more confrontation as authorities move to crush any opposition before the deal is secured.
Late last year Chinese President Xi Jinping made it clear there would be a crackdown on foreign religions this year and said they could operate only if they are “Chinese in orientation” and the Government “must provide active guidance to religions so that they can adapt themselves to socialist society”.
Despite the tough talk the congregation in Mindong believe their faith will prevail.
“We are the believers, we have a long history, Catholics are everywhere in this area and every village has a church,” local farmer Su Wenhua said.
An elderly famer’s wife, 70-year-old Lao Zheng, said she does not know much about the leaders’ deal but it might be a good thing.
“This belief is great, the Catholics should rule the entire world, it must be like that, this is our ideal, I also pray for this,” she said.
Catholics missionaries first came to Fujian 400 years ago and the practice is now part of the local culture.
China’s first churches were built in the province and China’s first priests were ordained here.
It has been a history of struggle and bloodshed and many believe this latest challenge may simply make their Catholic Church much stronger.