December 26, 2005

Chinese priests in property dispute return home

By Ben Blanchard and Chris Buckley

BEIJING (Reuters) - A group of Chinese Catholic priests and
nuns locked in a property dispute with a city government went
home over the weekend, but another group of nuns remain holed
up in a historic chapel demanding that its ownership be
returned to the Church.

Nuns belonging to the Sisters of Charity have occupied the
abandoned chapel in the northern port city of Tianjin since
August, demanding the building be returned to their hands, one
of the nuns, who gave her surname as Liu, said on Monday.

It is the second land dispute in Tianjin between the city
government and the Catholic Church, highlighting the tensions
between religion and government control in China, even as
Beijing courts diplomatic ties with the Vatican.

The priests and nuns are all members of China's official
Catholic Church, which respects the Pope as a spiritual leader
but rejects his administrative authority.

Liu said the chapel has "historic significance" for her
order. In 1870, the building, an adjoining orphanage and
nunnery, as well as other Tianjin churches were burned down in
anti-Western riots, and 10 nuns were killed.

In 1903 the chapel was rebuilt and it remained in Church
hands until after the Communist takeover in 1949. In later
decades the chapel disappeared behind new buildings and the
nuns, who regrouped in 1980, assumed it was destroyed.

But in 2003 the demolition of a handkerchief factory
revealed the chapel had survived, and the nuns have since been
demanding its return, Liu said.

About 10 nuns have occupied the chapel day and night since
August, when developers moved to demolish it.

"If we didn't move in, they would have taken it away from
us," said another nun, who asked not to be named. "The place
means a lot to us, but officials have just ignored our requests
for its return."


The other religious property protest in Tianjin petered out
over the weekend when the last of a group that originally
numbered almost 50 returned to their home province of Shanxi.

The mayor promised that if the remaining 13 priests, nuns
and seminarians went home, he would deal with the dispute, one
of the priests said.

"We've not given up our demand," the priest said by
telephone from Shanxi. "But we had to give the mayor face. He
said the deadlock could not go on as it would make the
situation even harder to solve."

The low-rise, colonial-style building in the former Italian
concession in Tianjin, southeast of Beijing, was owned by the
Shanxi Catholics before the 1949 Communist revolution.

The building was then seized by the government and has
never been handed back despite a 1993 promise to do so, the
priest said.

"We believe that if the Tianjin government has given their
word, it will be solved soon. We still want them to give the
building back so we can manage it," he said, before the line
was abruptly cut. He could not be reached again.

The Tianjin city government declined comment, but sent a
fax of an article from the official Xinhua news agency dated
December 23 on the dispute.

"The Tianjin government has a firm and clear policy on
religious properties and the protection of the legal rights of
religious groups," it quoted a spokesman from the State Bureau
of Religious Affairs as saying.

Chinese police regularly harass members of the underground
Roman Catholic Church, but generally leave religious services

Beijing has had no ties with the Vatican since 1951 and
insists relations cannot be resumed unless the Holy See severs
links with self-ruled Taiwan, which China claims as its own.

Since China restored officially controlled religion in the
1980s, it has selectively returned confiscated land to Catholic
churches. But in many places land remains in dispute.