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Another Test of Faith for China's Hidden Bishop
12/21/2004 8:48:00 PM by Damien McElroy - Daily Telegraph (UK)
Bishop Julius Jia comes rushing through the lacquered rosewood door dressed like a Chinese peasant, his blue cotton Mao suit topped with a navy sailor's cap.
The country's leading "underground" bishop has been flouting a ban on visiting members of his congregation and his disguise is vital for his safety.
Only when the elderly leader of hundreds of thousands of persecuted Chinese Catholics, who must worship in secret, pulls his bishop's ring from his pocket and slips it onto his finger is he transformed into a religious figure.
Christmas is coming - a season of celebration for most Roman Catholics but a time of even greater danger for Bishop Jia, who has been detained by the Chinese authorities on more than 30 occasions and spent more than 20 years in jail.
His refusal to join Beijing's official Catholic church, which does not recognise the Pope, makes him a prime target of their anger.
Bishop Jia, 69, was held against his will for two weeks over Easter and is resigned to the authorities once again coming to find him before Christmas Day with accusations that he is planning to disrupt social order. "It is normal at this time for the authorities to find some excuse to detain me," he says.
Catholics have lived in Hebei province, in northern China, for more than 400 years and it is now home to an estimated 1.5 million believers. Here, divisions between China's Beijing-backed Catholic Patriotic Church, and the underground church, are sharper than anywhere else in the country.
China's authorities still hold religion in contempt and suspect that direct communion with the Pope would turn the country's Catholics into a fifth column dedicated to overthrowing the regime.
Roughly half of China's four million Catholics now belong to the Communist-sanctioned Patriotic Church but Bishop Jia is adamant that he will not join them.
Government restrictions on the bishop's movements mean that he lives under house arrest in a tiny, whitewashed house near Wuqiu, a poor village where he founded an orphanage for unwanted children in 1991. Yet Bishop Jia frequently circumvents the order by going out to say Mass, often hiding in the back of a car.
His "diocese" is widely acknowledged to have the largest following in the province; in the middle of Wuqiu, a red-brick cathedral has been built, albeit without official approval.
He is out on one such mission when The Telegraph arrives, unannounced. To have called ahead would have alerted the authorities, who bug his telephone, to our visit. "The bishop is out visiting some people," says Liu Yongyi, a volunteer at the orphanage.
"You must come away from here quickly in case the police come on one of their inspections. We can call the bishop back but you must wait elsewhere."
Beneath a large painting of the Virgin Mary we sip tea and wait. Miss Liu makes a terse call to Bishop Jia's mobile.
"Come back now," she says. "You have business here." It is a line she uses often, a signal that the local police are asking for the bishop. Ten minutes later, he appears.
When Chairman Mao came to power in 1949, he was determined to rid China of religious superstitions.
The Cultural Revolution may have ended 28 years ago but Bishop Jia is still persecuted for his refusal to turn his back on the Vatican. Communist officials try to exert pressure on him by warning that his activities will get his followers into trouble.
Bishop Jia said that China's new reputation for being open was a deliberate attempt to hoodwink the outside world over human rights improvements. "Within the country, the truth is that we are not open," he says. "Look at me: if the country were really open, the police wouldn't follow me around all day long."
Since it was founded, the orphanage has taken in more than 90 children, ranging in age from just a few months to 21 years old. Most are not, strictly speaking, orphans but have been abandoned because of facial deformities that could be reversed if the parents could afford the treatment. "I have to rely on nuns and other people to run the orphanage," the bishop says. "We have no money for operations, or clothing. We rely on donations to survive."
There is no money for Christmas presents. "We try to have a special meal on Christmas Day, but we cannot afford a big celebration," he said. "Some people donate clothes, which we try to distribute to the children."
The bishop, of course, fully expects to be elsewhere on Christmas Day. During his first periods of incarceration, he used to be held in labour camps, where he was repeatedly beaten for refusing to recite slogans in praise of Chairman Mao.
Now, he is held in inner-city detention centres. "They don't treat me like a criminal any more," he says. "They just don't allow me to leave a room. I can't walk around and make phone calls. It's just the policemen and me living together, sharing the same food."
The schism between the official church and its underground counterpart is deep, yet Bishop Jia recognises that the dividing lines between the groups have also blurred. The Vatican has approved many of the official clergy as genuine. Equally, Beijing acknowledges its failure to crush the underground church.
Despite recent attempts at a rapprochement between the Vatican and Beijing, Bishop Jia vows never to abandon his principled belief in Rome.
"Most of the people working with the official recognised religious groups are respectable but there are people among them who are just willing to be used as tools for the government," he says.
"They are not sincere to God; they are not brothers or sisters of ours. I'm afraid that most of the top leaders in the religious groups are not reliable. Some of them are already married but are still holding important positions. Obviously, they are spies."
The Pope is known to have made one Chinese clergyman a cardinal in pectore - that is, a secret appointment - and Bishop Jia is widely believed to be that man. He is crucial to any further attempts to reconcile Beijing and the Vatican. And while the government harasses Bishop Jia, it has been unable to crush his spirit.
"For my followers, there are great risks, and I do bring them into danger sometimes," he says. "They are never scared so I don't worry. After all we know God will take care of us."