'Saints' in Rome Are 'Henchmen' To Beijing

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday , September 30, 2000 ; Page A14

BEIJING, Sept. 29 –– In a poor village in northern China known as Wang La, four girls raised in a Catholic orphanage were seized by a secret society of peasants sweeping across China a century ago in an anti-foreign, anti-Christian revolt against Western colonial domination.

The Boxers, as the rebels were known because of the mystical exercises they practiced to prepare for battle, put the girls in a cart and ordered them to give up their faith. According to the Vatican's account of the event, each of the girls replied: "We are daughters of God. We will not betray Him."

So the girls--Wang Cheng, Fan Kun, Ji Yu and Zheng Xu--were killed. On Sunday, Pope John Paul II will declare them martyrs for the faith and canonize them. The orphans, along with 83 other Chinese Roman Catholics killed between 1648 and 1930, will be the first Chinese raised to sainthood. Thirty-three foreign missionaries who died in China during those years also will be canonized.

Many Chinese Catholics have long awaited this moment. But the government has unleashed a surprisingly vitriolic attack on the new saints. In statements published by the state-run press, government officials have stopped just short of saying they deserved to die, arguing that most were "henchmen of imperialist aggression" who committed "evil acts" and "monstrous crimes against the Chinese people."

In many ways, the verbal assault--coming nearly six months after the Vatican first announced its plans--reflects the anxiety of the ruling Communist Party as it struggles to cope with a nationwide boom in religion that is threatening its authority.

In part, according to Catholic leaders in Hong Kong and Taiwan, the government is worried that clergy loyal to the pope may have infiltrated the "patriotic" Catholic church it established after breaking ties with the Vatican in 1951--the only one allowed to practice the faith openly. At the same time, the government is worried about the growing numbers of Catholics here who refuse to join the patriotic church, and instead risk arrest by worshiping in illegal "house-churches" loyal to the Vatican.

All this comes as China continues to crack down on a range of unapproved cults, sects and underground religions, including the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement and evangelical Protestant groups, that are prospering as traditional communist ideology loses its appeal in a society undergoing rapid social change.

For the most part, Chinese officials have avoided specific charges against the saints. The state-run press issued a report today attacking only eight of them by name, including three Chinese. One of the Chinese was accused of forcing people passing his house to enter and read the Bible; another was said to have cursed at children singing folk songs, and a third was accused of smashing a Buddhist statue.

But the canonization dispute centers on an event that holds a place of honor in communist ideology: the Boxer Rebellion. Half of the new saints were killed during the bloody peasant uprising against foreigners and Chinese Christians, which ended in 1900 with an invasion by Western powers and the looting of Beijing.

The Communist Party regards the rebellion as a patriotic outburst against decades of Western exploitation that continued until it took power in 1949. As for the Christian missionaries and the thousands of Chinese Christians who were killed, many Chinese officials and scholars argue that they were working closely with imperialists who used Christianity as an excuse to exploit China.

"Although some Western missionaries made contributions to the cultural exchange between China and the Western world . . . evangelistic campaigns did parallel with imperialism and colonial expansionism," said Deng Fucun, vice chairman of China's Three-Self Patriotic Movement, a group of official Protestant churches established in 1950. "Some Christian missionaries participated in the opium trade, drafting of unequal treaties, invasion and war."

Deng cited a letter by a Protestant missionary who wrote that he often risked his life to participate in the opium trade.

He also said Western missionaries acted as intelligence agents and guides for foreign invaders, and helped draft the humiliating Treaty of Nanjing, which ceded Hong Kong to Britain.

"Jesus came to China riding on a bombshell," Deng told reporters last week.

Now, Chinese officials say they suspect history is repeating itself because, they say, Western religious organizations, including the Vatican, are again interfering in Chinese affairs. For example, they accuse foreign missionaries of trying to undermine the government by urging Chinese not to register their churches.

Bishop Joseph Zen, the second-ranking Roman Catholic official in Hong Kong, acknowledged that some missionaries in the past "may have abused privileges obtained for them by the imperialists." But not the 33 missionaries to be canonized Sunday, he said, and certainly not the 87 Chinese saints who were killed, many of whom were laypersons, women and children.

Zen said he believed China's attack on the saints was aimed primarily at members of its own official church.

"The government must have noticed recently that their own bishops and priests are leaning more and more in the direction of Rome. They are having more contacts with the Vatican, and many have secretly asked to be recognized," Zen said. "So that's why they're making a big fuss and these incredible accusations against the saints. They're saying, 'Are you with me or are you with Rome?' "

In January, China defied the Vatican and named six new bishops without consulting the pope. But several of the official church's bishops did not show up for the ceremony, and a group of seminarians boycotted it, Zen said.

Now, he said, priests in the official church are being rounded up to "study" the government's stand on the new saints.

"I know of some priests who have already been arrested," Zen said. "This is the worst kind of persecution. It's a very difficult moment, and we have to pray for them."

Earlier this month, the Chinese reportedly arrested Zeng Jingmu, 81, a Roman Catholic bishop in the underground church who had already spent more than 30 years in prison, along with two other priests in southern China.

"This persecution creates martyrs, and it intensifies the faith for some people," said University of California-San Diego sociologist Richard Madsen, author of a recent book on Catholics in China. "The government has a problem with these religious groups . . . because its standard methods don't work that well."

"That's why it doesn't like to hear about this theme of martyrs dying for their faith," he said, adding that China's official Catholic church sometimes leaves the Catholic feast of the martyrs off of its calendars.

© 2000 The Washington Post