A call for Catholic unity in China

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The World's Mary Kay Magistad reports on Pope Benedict's call for Catholic unity in China. Chinese Catholics have long faced a division between a state-controlled church and an underground church more loyal to the Vatican.

KATY CLARK: I'm Katy Clark, this is The World. Being Catholic in China means facing a unique quandary. You can join the legal, government-supervised Catholic Church, which doesn't recognize the Pope's right to name bishops and cardinals. Or you can join the underground church, which is loyal to the Pope, and risk detention. The split has become more confusing lately. Most bishops in the state-recognized church have quietly made known their allegiance to the Pope. And Pope Benedict has called on the two sides to reconcile and integrate. The World's Mary Kay Magistad has more from Beijing.

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MARY KAY MAGISTAD: Sunday mass at Beijing's Northern Cathedral would be recognizable to Catholics anywhere, right down to the hymns.

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MARY KAY MAGISTAD: Worshippers fill the pews, the sound echoing up to the soaring gothic arches. This peaceful place has seen its share of turbulence. Just over a century ago, Catholics rallied to defend this church during the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion, and some 400 Catholics who took shelter here died. The church was again attacked, and then closed down during Mao Zedong's fanatic Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s.These days, the Communist Party allows Catholics to come here, and to thousands of other churches like it around the country, churches officially under the control of the Communist Party's Patriotic Catholic Association, rather than the Vatican. Liu Bainian chairs that association.

LIU BAINIAN: [TRANSLATED TO ENGLISH] The Pope is the representative of Jesus Christ and he spreads love to people around the world including China, but the Pope may not know well about China as China is a socialist country, and he doesn't know the history of Chinese Catholics. To spread the gospel in China, we have to follow Chinese laws and regulations.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: One of those laws is that all houses of worship in China must fall under the Communist Party umbrella. About five million Chinese Catholics have agreed to play by those rules. But that doesn't mean they have to like it.

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MARY KAY MAGISTAD: This woman, in her 60's, sits in the shade of a sprawling oak tree outside the Cathedral. She says her family has been Catholic for generations. She says, no one particularly likes having the Communist Party keep an eye on the church, and everyone here believes in the Pope. She says friends of hers who are in China's underground Catholic Church sometimes come to mass here, in a cathedral belonging to the official church. The Vatican says there are eight to 10 million underground Catholics in China. The Chinese government says the number is far smaller. Whatever the number, the lines between the above ground and underground churches are blurring, says Father Bernardo Cervellera. He directs the Catholic news service Asia News in Rome, and has lived and worked in China.

BERNARDO CERVELLERA: "We don't use no more the expression Patriotic Church. We use the term Official Church. It means that most of the bishops were even nominated by the government, they are now recognized by the Vatican, and they are reconciled with the Vatican. So practically, the official church tries to obey to the Pope in some way, even if it is recognized by the government, and even if it is controlled by the Patriotic Association.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: What that means in practice, he says, is that underground and aboveground Chinese bishops might live in the same building. And it means that, when priests elect a bishop, as they do in the official Chinese church, contrary to the regular custom of Papal appointment, the priests usually go for the candidate they know is the Pope's choice. The government has tended to go along with this, because it knows most Chinese Catholics aren't going to follow a bishop the Pope doesn't recognize. But Father Bernardo says the government does maintain a tight watch on bishops from both sides, 110 bishops in all, all but three approved by the Pope.

BERNARDO CERVELLERA: I know, for example, official bishops who are controlled 24 hours a day, because the Patriotic Association doesn't want bishops to work as bishops. They are taken for a brainwashing and political sessions and so on, on the freedom of religion offered by the Chinese government.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: Father Bernardo says at least three Chinese bishops have disappeared, others have been arrested, one just in March, and many underground bishops are held under house arrest. But others operate fairly freely, like Wei Jin Yi in the northeastern city of Qiqihar. I caught up with him by phone, after he'd been on a road trip, and asked how much interference he faces.

WEI JIN YI: [TRANSLATED TO ENGLISH] I think our relationship with the police is ok. They respect us and are friendly. They say we can't be recognized by the government, yet, but this is not a problem they can solve.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: Wei is just 52 years old, and was made a bishop at 38, by Pope John Paul II. Pope Benedict has now called on bishops like Wei, and all members of China's underground church, to reconcile with China's official church. The goal is to move toward the Vatican having an official relationship with the Chinese government, and a papal nuncio in Beijing, as it did before the Communists came to power in 1949. The nuncio is now in Taiwan, but observers say the Vatican could move it to Beijing in one night, if China's leaders would agree to let the Church operate the same way in China that it does everywhere else. The idea is that this could help strengthen the Catholic Church in China, which is still just one percent of the total population, about the same proportion as it was before Communist Party rule. Bishop Wei says he'd have no problem joining the official church, in fact, he's sent a letter to the government, asking it to recognize him as an official bishop with one catch.

WEI JIN YI: [TRANSLATED TO ENGLISH] When I made the proposal to the government, I made it clear that I'd be willing to accept the government's supervision, but not the Patriotic Catholic Association's. I think it's wrong to have a political organization supervise bishops. Maybe that's the reason they haven't given me a reply yet.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: The Chinese Communist Party's Patriotic Catholic Association blocked Bishop Wei in 2005 from attending a special meeting of bishops in Rome, to which he'd been invited by the Pope. At the time, the association's chairman, Liu Bainian, said he didn't have record of any such bishop. In our interview, Liu doesn't try to hide his disdain for China's underground clergy.

LIU BAINIAN: They don't really believe in Catholicism. They are just using the priest as an identity to encourage other people to go against the government.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: Which is one justification the government gives for arresting underground priests and bishops and occasionally, ordinary members of the underground Catholic Church.

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MARY KAY MAGISTAD: This village church in Hebei province, near Beijing, has been both underground, and aboveground. The priest and church workers here ask that neither their names nor the name of the church be given because it's been closed by local authorities in the past. They're torn about what to think of the Pope's call for greater unity among Catholics in China. They wonder whether that will help them achieve their ultimate goal of being able to worship like any other Catholic in the world.

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MARY KAY MAGISTAD: For now, China's official church offers something that looks and sounds tantalizingly close. But with the Communist Party standing firm in its refusal to allow an outside power to control something within China, a stance the Party has inherited from a long line of Chinese emperors, it seems it will take a lot more than the Pope's call for unity to make a real change. For The World, I'm Mary Kay Magistad in Beijing.

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KATY CLARK: The day's top new story is our next on PRI.