By James Jeffrey
The glamorous storefronts on Wangfujing Avenue roll by: Gucci, Bally, Hugo Boss, and Burberry. But turn the corner at Emporio Armani and there’s an abrupt change.
In the midst of teenage skateboarders and brides posing for studio photographers, Chinese tourists gather in front of a statue depicting the biblical figure Joseph holding a sleeping baby Jesus that stands in front of a Catholic church.
St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, like Christianity in general, appears to be endorsed by the Chinese Communist Party’s rule. Yet some Christians can still be subjected to harassment and aren’t free to worship, and what’s permissible is based on a stark line drawn by Chinese authorities between official and non-official churches—even within the same denomination.
So what does an officially endorsed church like St. Joseph’s signify for the role of Christianity and religious freedom in today’s China?
“After the Cultural Revolution it was realized religious belief doesn’t stop development,” said Margaret Yu, 80, a volunteer guide who works every day at the church. She said there used to be limitations on religion, but things have changed.
“It’s an improving situation and I hope there will be more freedom,” Yu said.
The issue of religious freedom is by no means clear-cut for all Chinese. There are two types of Catholics in China—those loyal to the Pope, who aren’t recognized by Chinese authorities, and non-Vatican-affiliated Catholics like those of St. Joseph’s.
Father John Wangheping, 42, has been a priest for 10 years and preaches at St. Joseph’s. He said he knows America well after doing his ethics masters and doctorate at Yonkers University (New York) and the University of California at Berkeley, respectively.
“It depends on the concept of freedom and who interprets it,” he said, explaining Chinese who follow the guidance of civil law are free within those terms. He acknowledged if people tried preaching the gospel on Wangfujing Avenue in Beijing, they’d be breaking the law, whereas in America people can preach on the street.
“That is the freedom there; this is the freedom here,” he said. “It’s hard to say which one is good.”
Sitting at a pew in St. Joseph’s was Li Peng, 25, who said although not a Christian, he’s interested in Christianity’s role for China. He said connecting the reality of China with democracy and freedom is a serious problem. “When we are calling for democracy that needs a strong base—maybe religion is part of this base?”
Jaime Florcruz has lived in China through the last 40 years of change, and is currently CNN’s Beijing Bureau Chief. He said now there is no dominant ideology in China.
“There has been a spiritual shift,” he said, “and people are looking for something like religion to anchor their lives to.”
But finding a practicing Christian on St. Joseph’s square isn’t easy. Sun Juan, 27, an accountant, said the elder generation tends to have religious belief, but she doesn’t pay much attention to the issue.
Hua Wenjie, 27, an interpreter with the University of Texas workshop producing ChinaInFocus, said she does not believe in any religion, but still respects the temples and churches she encounters.
“I just try to live happily every day,” Hua said. “A religion should emphasize the importance of this life and the next life, as both are equally important.”