As Pope Francis embarked on his historic visit to Mongolia, he sent a telegram from his plane to Chinese President Xi Jinping, extending his well wishes to Xi and the Chinese people. This gesture is customary when the Pope is on official business and flies over countries. While the Pope’s message of goodwill was being sent, Theresa Liu, a 58-year-old restaurant owner and devout Chinese Catholic, was praying for his safe journey. Liu, like many Chinese Catholics, feels a strong connection to the Pope but is unable to openly express her faith due to the increasing pressure from the Chinese government.
Liu, who runs a restaurant in Fuzhou, wished she could have traveled to Mongolia to see the Pope, but her responsibilities and fear of government repercussions prevented her from doing so. She spoke about the difficulties faced by Chinese Catholics, estimating that their numbers reach as high as 10 million in a country that officially promotes atheism. Liu believes that the government seeks to control every aspect of their religion, from the appearance of churches to the selection of priests and the manner of worship. She also expressed her belief that other religious groups in China face similar challenges.
The Chinese government claims to guarantee freedom of religion for its citizens in Article 36 of the Constitution. However, experts argue that this constitutional provision is not reflected in reality. The Muslim Uighur population in Xinjiang has been subjected to detention, restrictions on religious practices, and the destruction of mosques. In Tibet, the practice of Tibetan Buddhism has been heavily restricted, with religious festivals being banned and government employees and students barred from participating in religious activities. The Chinese government has also been accused of forcibly assimilating Tibetan children in state-run boarding schools to eliminate their cultural and religious traditions.
Religious minorities across China, such as the Hui Muslims and Christian communities, have also faced similar challenges. Hui mosques and cemeteries have been destroyed or subjected to renovations, and Hui communities have been prohibited from using the Arabic script on religious sites. Christians in Zhejiang Province have experienced the demolition of crosses and the breaking up of unapproved congregations, with church leaders being arrested and jailed.
These encroachments on religious customs and spaces are part of President Xi Jinping’s vision of “sinicisation,” which refers to adapting religion to align with dominant Chinese culture and socialist core values. This involves replacing traditional religious symbols with Chinese-styled architectural features, implementing patriotic education for clergy, and ensuring that sermons and prayers are approved by the party. The aim is to weaken ties to religious authorities outside of China and protect the power of the Chinese Communist Party.
However, Liu and others like her remain steadfast in their faith despite the challenges. She does not support the 2018 pact between the Vatican and the Chinese authorities, believing that the government will not honor such agreements. Instead, she believes it is better to practice their faith discreetly and keep religious affairs behind closed doors. Liu remains hopeful that one day their religious freedom will be fully respected.
In conclusion, the story highlights the struggles faced by Chinese Catholics and other religious communities in China due to increasing government control and restrictions. Despite the challenges, individuals like Theresa Liu remain committed to their faith and continue to pray for the day when their religious freedom will be fully recognized.