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Beijing’s hidden cathedral

By Johnny Erling
Ein Bild von Johnny Erling

Disasters like the Ukraine war crowd out all other news, including that of everyday repression in China. On March 1, for example, China’s new “Measures on the Administration of Internet Religious Information Services” went into effect almost unnoticed, further eroding China’s constitutional right to freedom of belief. With rigorous surveillance, Party leader Xi Jinping aims to close or narrow all online outlets for religious content. Only five party-sanctioned, state-loyal church communities of Protestants, Catholics, Daoists, Buddhists and Muslims are allowed to practice their faith – in a manner strictly controlled by the party.

Easter 2016: The mighty cathedral rises higher than the skyscrapers of Chongli

This leads to increasingly absurd incidents. On the occasion of the 2022 Winter Olympics, Beijing wanted to present itself to the outside world as cosmopolitan and tolerant. It had the cathedral of a diocese loyal to the Pope restored, which is located in the middle of the Olympic ski area. But that was just a mere calculation. When the COVID-19 pandemic made it impossible for Olympic participants to visit the cathedral, China’s authorities had the church, which had become useless, closed, and hidden from public view.

Something similar happened at the 2008 Summer Olympics, when Beijing had Bibles printed for all international participants. But that, too, was just for show. After the end of the Olympics, these Bibles were withdrawn from the market.

Even more grotesque: In the old imperial city of Kaifeng, all visible relics of the former Jewish community have been wiped off the face of the earth in recent years. Beijing wanted to prevent that their existence could potentially revive the Jewish faith in China. All three cases, as well as the horrific repression of the Uyghur Muslim minority, reflect a grotesque fear of the party losing control over beliefs and ethnicities.

Reprint of the New Testament for the athletes and participants of the 2008 Summer Olympics, including Olympic logo. After the end of the Games, the Holy Scriptures were confiscated again.

It only took Friedrike Böge, the correspondent of the German newspaper FAZ in Beijing, 55 minutes to reach Taiji station, which is 250 kilometers away, by high-speed train at the end of December. From there, it takes 20 minutes by cab to reach the winter sports center of Chongli. Locals also call the eponymous town with 60,000 inhabitants in the mountains of northwest China Xiwanzi (崇礼西湾子). This is also the name of its Catholic diocese. For the 2022 Olympics, however, Chongli is the name of the world-famous venue for all ski disciplines.

But journalist Böge was not drawn to the artificial snow. She was on her way to track down the history of the mighty Chongli Cathedral. With its twin spires, it once became the landmark of the diocese founded 200 years ago. Built between 1923 and 1926, the magnificent Catholic building could accommodate up to 2,000 believers. Urban building historians Luo Wei and Lu Haiping (罗微, 吕海平) rated the cathedral in 2019 (塞北天主教圣地西湾子教堂建堂始末) as the most important, Chinese church building of the “Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.” This was the name of the missionaries of the Belgian Scheut Order who began to evangelize Xiwanzi in the mid-19th century and made it the center of the Catholic faith in northern China. But in December 1946, Mao’s soldiers of the “Eighth Route Army” 八路军 bombed and burned the cathedral during the civil war with the Kuomintang.

But the diocese of Xiwanzi has remained a bastion of the underground church loyal to the Pope to this day. Nevertheless, atheist Beijing seemed willing to jump over its shadow to promote the 2022 Winter Olympics. It supported the reconstruction of the cathedral, begun privately by the congregation. When Beijing won the bid to host the 2015 Olympics, the entire structure was faithfully restored, as was the missionary cemetery devastated during the Cultural Revolution. China’s Olympic planners calculated that, eventually, all winter athletes coming to Chongli would be interested in visiting. Beijing would score.

In 2016, the posters were already printed to promote the renovated Chongli Cathedral as a landmark of integrated culture on the occasion of the 2022 Winter Olympics

But then COVID-19 changed everything. The Winter Olympics could only be held in a cordoned-off, isolated bubble. The Cathedral was located outside of it, and so Beijing lost interest. Journalist Boege found the cathedral was “closed until further notice due to Covid and the Olympics.” She learned from the church’s faithful that “no services have been allowed to be held in the church since October.”

The cathedral faded back into obscurity. As a correspondent, I had first heard about the reconstruction in 2016. Catholic friends gave me a 74-page color photo volume officially printed at Easter 2016 under the Chinese-English title “Church Album.” It includes advertising posters bearing the logo of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics with the cathedral as Chongli’s new landmark. For the picture book’s foreword, priest Paul Zhang (张保禄) writes: “With the 2022 Games, Xiwanzi will become the platform for the re-encounter of Eastern and Western culture.” 随着2022年冬奥会的到来,西湾子将再度成为中西文化交汇的平台. His pious wish was not to come true.

As early as 2008, Beijing pretended to uphold religious freedom at the Summer Olympics, which were awarded to China for the first time. It commissioned the National Committee of the Protestant State Church “Three-Self Patriotic Movement” to print a Chinese-English edition of the New Testament specifically as the “Olympia 2008 Edition.” Each athlete found it in the closet drawer of his or her room in the Olympic Village, with the addresses, phone numbers, and Sunday services of 13 Protestant churches in the capital. Beijing even had five worship rooms set up in the Olympic Village for Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus.

This had nothing to do with a new position on religion. Immediately after the Olympics, authorities had the Bibles confiscated and destroyed. A church employee secretly sent me a copy. At that time, the bishop and president of the China Christian Council, K.H. Ting (丁 光 訓), had hopefully written in the New Testament: “The Bible unites us.”

Dedication for the 2008 Olympic Bible by Bishop K.H. Ting: “The Bible Unites Us”.

China’s fear of losing control has led the communist leadership to crack down even harder on all religious groups, sects and house churches that are not recognized by the state since 2008. Beijing did not even stop at the mere 200 members of a Mosaic community whose ancestors had migrated from India, Iraq or Persia via the Silk Road a thousand years ago. The Jewish weavers and merchants settled in the former Song-era imperial city of Kaifeng on the Yellow River with imperial privilege. But the People’s Republic of China never recognized the Jewish religion as an independent faith within China.

In the attic of her apartment, Guo Yan, a Jewish woman in Kaifeng, hides models of the former synagogue and a Torah ark built by her father. Guo believes that her ancestors came to Kaifeng from India 1000 years ago

The trigger for today’s absurd persecution of the descendants was a Passover festival celebrated by Jewish families of Kaifeng and surrounding villages in a hotel in the spring of 2015. The New York Times wrote a report about it, whose translation alarmed officials in Beijing. Even though they actually read harmless things about revived old Jewish traditions and customs. They also read about plans to promote a Jewish cultural center with a museum and the reconstruction of the synagogue, which was last destroyed in 1851. Because Jewish NGOs from the US and Israel were in attendance and sympathetic local Chinese officials were among the guests at the festival, Beijing even put the issue on the agenda of a Politburo meeting led by Xi Jinping. At issue were potential threats to the party from the proliferation of religions.

Such fears led security authorities in Kaifeng to interrogate all 70 participants of the Passover festival, I was told at the time. All were warned to celebrate religious festivals only in private and at home. At the same time, Kaifeng authorities demanded that all visible evidence of Jewish culture and religion on the streets and in the city had to disappear. A historic fountain that had once belonged to the synagogue destroyed by the floods was filled in. Two still preserved memorial stones with inscriptions on the development of the Jewish community from 1489 to 1663 were removed. Even a memorial plaque erected by the city only in 2008 was removed. It had commemorated the first synagogue of Kaifeng, built in 1163.

The fact that a community that immigrated to China 1,000 years ago and is so small today can provoke such strong reactions in Beijing is one of the grotesques of communist politics, as is Beijing’s treatment of the hidden cathedral in Chongli.

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