Pope Francis has urged Chinese Catholics to be spiritually united “to the rock of Peter” and be “ever more credible witnesses” of Christ’s love.
In an appeal ahead of the feast of Our Lady Help of Christians, 24 May, which is marked in China with special devotions and pilgrimages, Francis noted that the statue at the National Marian Shrine of Sheshan in Shanghai depicts Mary holding the Child Jesus in the air with his arms outstretched “in a gesture of love and mercy”. He called on all Christians to “ask Mary to help Catholics in China always to be credible witnesses of this merciful love among their fellow citizens and to live spiritually united to the rock of Peter, upon whom the Church is built," he said.
Some Chinese churches are registered with the communist Government’s Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, but other “underground” churches face sanctions for refusing to join.
The Pope made his comments days after authorities in the eastern province of Zhejiang issued draft legislation that aims to reduce the prominence of crosses on churches, drawing the ire of church leaders from both the Catholic and Protestant communities.
The legislation follows an anti-Christian campaign last year, when the authorities in Zhejiang forcibly removed at least 470 crosses and destroyed more than 35 churches, often after sit-ins and other protests from parishioners.
Bishop Paul Meng Qinglu, deputy chairman of the state-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, said in March that Beijing had issued an “internal order” calling for an end to the demolition of churches and their crosses.
But last week, authorities asked for responses to draft rules claiming to “protect freedom of religious belief”, which include a ban on affixing crosses to the tops of churches as well as restrictions on mosques, and Buddhist and Daoist temples, UCA News reported.
The 36-page directive also states that crosses must be painted in colours that blend in with church façades, and designed with a height-to-width ratio of one to 0.618 at Catholic churches and one to 0.667 on Protestant churches.
“It is quite standard around the world that the cross is placed on the rooftop. How can we just fix it on the façade? It’s difficult for us to accept,” one underground Catholic priest in the city of Wenzhou told UCA News.
Chongyi Church, the largest Protestant church in Zhejiang’s provincial capital, Hangzhou, issued a statement saying that the proposed legislation “blasphemes the foundational belief of Christianity”, violates China’s constitution in respect to freedom of religious belief and is “discriminatory with more unreasonable requirements on the Catholic and Protestant Churches”.
Above: Sanjiang Protestant church in Wenzhou was demolished last April despite parishioners forming a human chain around it in an attempt to stop the bulldozers