Rome churches remain open after Catholics rail against ‘Christ in quarantine’

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – A cardinal on Friday modified his order to close Rome’s churches to help contain the spread of coronavirus after Pope Francis cautioned against “drastic measures” and Catholics took to social media to complain.

Cardinal Angelo De Donatis issued a new decree less than a day after his initial order. Many churches in the Italian capital will now remain open.

Some Catholics accused the cardinal of caving in to the government after his initial decree on Thursday night. Andrea Fauro said on social media the move had put “Christ in quarantine”.

Catholic bishops around the world were deciding how to deal with the pandemic in their own dioceses and what guidance they should give to the 1.3 billion-member Church in places from Little Rock to Lyon.

“Drastic measures are not always good,” the pope said on Friday in improvised remarks at the start of his morning Mass, streamed on the internet and televised live without outside participants in order to limit gatherings of people.

Francis prayed that God give pastors “the strength and even the capacity to choose the best means to help” those suffering from the pandemic “so that they can provide measures that do not leave the holy faithful people of God alone”.

Hours after the pope spoke, De Donatis modified the decree. Whereas most of Rome’s more than 750 churches were to have been closed until April 3, the new decree says all parish churches and those run by religious communities will remain open.

Those that will close number fewer than 300 and do not have a parish community or are visited mostly by tourists.

Previously, only Masses had been canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak. Individual bishops can decide whether to keep their churches open, and many are open in parts of Italy.

The pope is bishop of Rome and the cardinal is his administrative vicar.

The Italian government on Wednesday closed virtually every commercial activity in the country apart from pharmacies, food shops and other stores selling essential goods and services.

Customers must enter a few at a time, keep a safe distance from each other and wear surgical masks in some cases.

Critics said being allowed to pray in a church, albeit with precautions similar to those imposed on stores, should be seen as an essential service.

“My heart is in pieces,” Father Maurizio Mirilli, a pastor of a Rome parish said in an anguished tweet on Thursday. “I have to close everything, even the church … I feel like a father whose children have been snatched from him.”

(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Postcards from a poisoned coast: Vietnam’s people-smuggling heartland

Postcards from a poisoned coast: Vietnam’s people-smuggling heartland
NGHE AN, Vietnam (Reuters) – The countryside in the Vietnamese provinces of Nghe An and Ha Tinh is dotted with billboards for labor export companies advertising jobs or study overseas.

Thousands of people respond to the lure of a better life abroad every year, but many take the underground route – via smugglers and sometimes dangerous journeys by sea and road.

That phenomenon is now in sharp focus after 39 bodies were discovered in a truck outside London last week.

Many are feared to be Vietnamese from Nghe An and Ha Tinh, rice-growing areas in the northern-central part of the country.

Poor job prospects, encouragement by authorities, smuggling gangs, environmental disaster and government pressure on Catholics are all local factors behind the wave of migrants.

“Almost everyone round here has a relative overseas,” said Bui Thac, whose nephew Bui Phan Thang is feared to be among the container dead.

“Almost all households have someone going abroad. Old people stay but young people must find ways to work abroad because it’s difficult to work at home”.

Impoverished rural communities in Nghe An and Ha Tinh have been plunged into despair amid fears that missing loved ones are among those who died in the tragedy.

LABOR “EXPORTS” A PRIORITY

For Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party, the benefits of people legally moving abroad to work are clear.

The People’s Committee of Nghe An issued a report on boosting labor exports this September.

“Labor exports are a priority for the Party and the state’s socio-economic development program to promote job creation, poverty reduction, career development and income generation for the People,” the report on Decision No. 274/2009/NQ-HDND reads.

GDP per capita in both provinces is lower than the national average of $2,540. Last year, people in Nghe An and Ha Tinh earned a total of $1,636 and $2,217 respectively.

But remittances from overseas help. Nghe An alone brought in $255 million a year, according to state media.

“Labor exports are one solution to unemployment,” Nguyen Quang Phu, deputy chairman of Thanh Loc Commune, Can Loc district, told Reuters. “Remittances have helped to improve the lives of the people here”.

Despite economic advantages, the tragedy has exposed the limits of the Communist Party’s ability to govern how people are leaving.

Vibrant Catholic communities and people-trafficking gangs both pose headaches to the party, which rules from Hanoi some 300 km (180 miles) to the north.

A toxic spill that poisoned fishing grounds three years ago is a further incentive to go abroad.

GANGS

Among those who once set out from Nghe An to find work abroad was communist revolutionary and founding president, Ho Chi Minh.

Vietnam’s first billionaire, Pham Nhat Vuong, went to the former Soviet Union in the 1990s before returning to build his Vingroup <VIC.HM> conglomerate. His roots are in Ha Tinh.

“People from these provinces have a long history of going overseas to earn money to send back home, especially during the time of the labor export program to the former Soviet bloc countries,” said Mimi Vu, an independent anti-trafficking advocate based in Ho Chi Minh City.

“After decades of this, the people believe that it’s the only way to be successful and support the family with remittances,” Vu said.

Though impossible to quantify, local residents and people-trafficking experts believe many people leave with the help of smuggling gangs in Vietnam, who charge families thousands of dollars to get a relative overseas.

People-smuggling to Britain has persisted for a long time, and London’s National Crime Agency has posted a liaison officer to the British Embassy in Hanoi who helps combat the problem with Vietnamese police, along with handling other issues.

In an opinion piece published last month, Britain’s Ambassador to Vietnam, Gareth Ward, warned of the dangers of believing promises made by the gangs.

“They are not friends. They are criminals.”

POISONED WATERS

Opportunities for local employment have been hampered by environmental disaster.

Sandwiched between thin sandy beaches and herds of buffalo wallowing in rice paddies, the smoking chimneys of the Formosa Steel plant dominate this small corner of Ha Tinh province.

The steel mill, owned by Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics, was blamed by Hanoi in 2016 for causing one of Vietnam’s worst environmental disasters when a chemical leak poisoned coastal waters, unleashing widespread protests and damaging livelihoods.

“We decided to let my husband work abroad in 2016 when the Formosa incident happened,” said Anna Nguyen, whose husband left Vietnam and traveled illegally to Ukraine, France and then the UK to find work in a nail salon.

“We were afraid that the contamination would harm our health and future so we took the risk. But now our life is so hard,” she said.

Ha Tinh’s state-run newspaper said last month that over 40,000 people leave the province annually for work elsewhere, including overseas.

THE PRIEST

Like Anna Nguyen, many of those feared to have died in the container incident had Catholic names.

Northern-central Vietnam is dotted with clusters of small, Catholic communities, a hangover from France’s conquest. Nghe An is home to 280,000 Catholics, according to state media and 149,000 live in Ha Tinh.

At a special ceremony held in the white-walled My Khanh Catholic church in Yen Thanh, Nghe An province, on Saturday night, father Anthony Dang Huu Nam blamed pollution, social difficulties and natural disasters such as floods and drought for the region’s most recent migrant exodus.

Nam’s outspoken sermons and criticism of Vietnam’s government have earned both him and his church extra attention from the police, another factor encouraging some people to look for a new life elsewhere.

“Why do so many Vietnamese people have to pay lots of money just to be dead?,” Nam said during the ceremony.

“Why is it that, even though Vietnam is not at war anymore, so many people are forced to leave for another land?”

(Writing by James Pearson; Editing by Matthew Tostevin and Mike Collett-White)

Vatican says China intimidating Catholics loyal to pope

FILE PHOTO: A believer prays outside St. Joseph's Church, a government-sanctioned Catholic church, in Beijing, China, October 1, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – The Vatican asked China’s communist government on Friday to stop intimidating Catholic clergy who want to remain unequivocally loyal to the pope and refuse to sign ambiguous official registration forms.

The request, contained in Vatican guidelines to clergy in mainland China, was the latest hiccup in relations between the Holy See and Beijing since the two sides signed a historic and disputed pact on the naming of bishops last September.

Under Chinese law, priests and bishops must register with the state. They also must sign a form accepting the principle of independence, autonomy and self-administration of the Church in China.

Some have refused, fearing that it could jeopardize their fidelity to the pope as their religious leader and the independence of the local Church on doctrinal matters.

Catholics in China are emerging from more than half a century of division which saw them split between a state-backed “official” Church and a “non-official” underground Church that remained loyal to Rome.

Some divisions have begun to dissipate slowly since the September agreement, which gives the pope final say in the appointment of bishops. But the registration process has caused difficulties for those emerging from the non-official Church.

In the guidelines, the Vatican called for a registration procedure “that is more respectful of Catholic doctrine, and thus of the consciences of those involved”.

It added: “The Holy See asks that no intimidatory pressures be applied to the ‘non official’ Catholic communities, as, unfortunately, has already happened.”

The guidelines, requested by some Chinese bishops, said clergy should demand to include a sentence affirming that Catholic doctrine would be respected.

If authorities do not permit that, the priest or bishop, before signing, should take a stand orally before a government authority, preferably with a witness present.

September’s landmark deal between the Vatican and China has split Catholics there and around the world, with some critics of the pope saying he has caved in to the Communist government.

The deal’s most outspoken critic has been Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former archbishop of Hong Kong.

China’s constitution guarantees religious freedom, but since President Xi Jinping took office six years ago, the government has tightened restrictions on religions seen as a challenge to the authority of the ruling Communist Party.

China has been following a policy it calls the “Sinicisation” of religion, trying to root out foreign influences and enforce obedience to the Communist Party.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

For one Catholic parish in China, division and confusion as historic deal looms

FILE PHOTO: A Catholic faithful holds a rosary during a mass on Holy Thursday at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing, China March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo

By James Pomfret

YINGTAN, China (Reuters) – Like many Chinese Catholics, Lin Jinqing was shocked when news trickled through to him of an impending deal between Beijing and the Vatican that would end a long dispute over control of the Church in China.

As a member of a so-called “underground” church – one that is not sanctioned by Beijing – in the southeastern province of Jiangxi, Lin and fellow parishioners have for years been attending clandestine Bible readings and services.

In recent years, as Chinese authorities cracked down on underground services as part of broader restrictions on religious groups, he has also started attending services at state-sanctioned churches in order to avoid trouble.

“The pressure on underground church members has been quite big,” said Lin, who lives in Yingtan, a gritty city of one million people in southeastern Jiangxi province.

Now, the deal between China and the Vatican is worrying him.

“Many of us don’t know what to think,” he said. He said that the underground churchgoers wanted more freedom to worship. “But at what cost?”

A senior Vatican source told Reuters last month that a framework accord was ready and could be signed in months. The expected deal would allow China to appoint bishops, in consultation with the Vatican, and eventually could lead to the restoration of full diplomatic relations between the two sides for the first time in seven decades.

Until now, China and the Vatican have not recognized most bishops named by each other. Underground Catholics like Lin have stayed loyal to Vatican-appointed bishops – and the Pope.

News of the impending deal has split communities of Catholics across China, according to some critics like Cardinal Joseph Zen in Hong Kong.

Some fear greater suppression should the Vatican cede greater control to Beijing, but others want to see rapprochement.

“We hope for an early establishment of ties. It will definitely bring advantageous policies, and greater openness to the Church,” said Father Pan Yinbao, a priest affiliated with the official Church in Yingtan, in an interview with Reuters. “There is a need for change. There is a need for adjustment.”

Lin’s apprehensions, meanwhile, are echoed in WeChat groups used by Catholics, and the few uncensored religious news sites still viewable in China like www.tianzhujiao.life – as is cautious criticism.

“Churchgoers stay hopeful on the Vatican-China deal, but no one wants to live in a bird cage or only fighting for a larger space in the bird cage,” read one post by a blogger named Priest Shanren. “People are born to be free.”

The Chinese Communist Party has long sought to control organized groups, including religious ones, whose devotees can only worship under the auspices of state-sanctioned bodies, like the Catholic Patriotic Association.

Of the 146 bishops now in China, about a third are affiliated with the underground church.

A source close to the Vatican based in Hong Kong said that there would be a tightening of religious freedoms following a restructuring of China’s religious affairs authority this year, to bring it directly under party, rather than state control.

A Chinese government statement explaining the move said it would help China “steadfastly persevere in the direction of Sinicizing our country’s religions”.

This week, Guo Xijin, a bishop in the southeastern province of Fujian was detained by authorities for refusing to officiate Easter services with an official bishop. Guo, who is reportedly one of two Chinese bishops the Vatican has asked to retire or accept demotion to make way for a Beijing-backed one, couldn’t be reached by Reuters for comment.

Some critics and Chinese Catholics say rapprochement between Beijing and the Vatican could drive an even deeper wedge between the faithful in China, and engender some bitterness toward the Vatican.

TORN LOYALTIES AND FACTIONS

Those divisions are evident in places like Jiangxi province, where there are factions even within the underground Church.

When the province’s then 92-year-old Vatican-appointed bishop, Thomas Zeng Jingmu, retired in 2012, one faction, led by a relative, split from another underground faction loyal to the Vatican’s appointed successor, Bishop John Peng Weizhao.

The faction loyal to Peng, which now has at least six priests leading underground Masses, is likely to remain opposed to any deal and lead to the erosion of the Vatican’s authority, according to a source with close ties to underground Catholics in Jiangxi’s three dioceses.

She said that some devout Catholics across China were prepared to cut ties with the Vatican over a deal. “If they’re abandoned by the Vatican they’ll pray to God themselves at home,” said the source who declined to be named given the sensitivity of the matter.

“The Vatican has done the calculations and they feel it doesn’t matter if they abandon the underground, because they are a relatively small group, and will sooner or later fade away.”

Peng, who was detained by authorities for six months in 2014, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s equivalent of a foreign minister, said at a conference on Chinese Catholicism in Rome, that while the faithful in China had experienced “great suffering” in the past, the country was seeking to regain a central position in the world and so efforts should be made to forge Catholicism with “Chinese forms”.

 

RELIGIOUS SPIN

While some dioceses in coastal Fujian and in inland Hebei have large clusters of underground Catholics, Jiangxi’s are less influential. Many in the area, including 62-year-old Liu Ande, have switched to the official Church.

“We are sons and daughters of God but for our country, we must listen to the leaders here,” Liu said after a Sunday Mass at the official Catholic church in Yingtan.

The church is a shabby building in need of paint wedged into a residential courtyard with several cracked windows, where 48 mostly elderly Catholics listened to a sermon by Father Pan.

After Mass, on the steps of the church, some of the tensions of the impending deal were laid bare.

Liu asked Pan to verify if the Vatican had asked another Bishop in southern China besides Guo, to step down.

“Is it true? We’ve heard it’s true? It should be true,” said Liu. “Everyone is opposed to this.”

But Pan, the official priest, now dressed in a blue fleece jacket after mass, disputed the standoff.

“Whether it’s true or not isn’t clear,” he told Liu, who began nodding. “There’s a lot of news on the internet.”

Another worshipper dressed in a pink coat, who would only give her surname as Li, said she would be praying for a better tomorrow.

“If you’ve done bad things, you must then try to do lots of good things,” she said. “There shouldn’t be tensions,” she added. “We are all just trying to save our own souls.”

(Additional reporting by Anita Li in Shanghai; Philip Pullella in Rome; Greg Torode, Venus Wu and Chermaine Lee in Hong Kong; Editing by Philip McClellan)