- The Washington Times - Monday, March 14, 2011

Lent began last week, and like clockwork, China’s communist government ramped up its persecution of the country’s Catholics. Every holy season, Beijing and local cadres bulldoze churches and round up believers to remind Christians that there are severe consequences to faith in the officially atheist People’s Republic. Christmas, for example, is a particularly popular time to arrest priests. For millions of suffering Chinese trying to worship freely, martyrdom at the hands of the state isn’t a relic of past ages; it’s a fact of everyday life.

What instigated the latest crackdown was the death on Ash Wednesday of 95-year-old Bishop Andrew Hao Jinli of Xiwanzi, who shepherded believers in the underground church in the rural northeastern province of Hebei. Security forces were mobilized to block the flock from paying last respects and attending his funeral. In the past two weeks, pro-democracy dissidents have been arrested in Hebei. As popular protests topple and threaten authoritarian regimes across the Middle East, communist officials clearly don’t want to take any chances by allowing any concentration of disgruntled Chinese to build up.

Bishop Hao’s story parallels that of many of his coreligionists in the Middle Kingdom. Ordained in 1943, his existence became increasingly precarious after Maoists took over China in 1949, outlawed church connections to Rome and eventually established the communist-run Patriotic Catholic Association in 1957. Refusing to renounce his beliefs or his loyalty to the papacy, Bishop Hao endured decades of prison, torture and forced labor camps.

The cleric’s life and death reflect the rocky relationship between Beijing and the Vatican. Late last year, the Patriotic Church consecrated a bishop without consent from the Holy See and elected an outlaw not approved by the pope to head the Chinese Catholic Bishops Association. These moves broke with recent practice and put bilateral relations at their worst point in many years for the two strict hierarchical organizations responsible for over a billion souls each.

Communist anxiety over a dead country priest exposes official paranoia about any movement or association state authorities cannot control. Beijing can have soldiers patrol the streets, put spies in pews, have junior Marxists taking notes in the classroom, micromanage newspapers, pick and choose corporate executives and try to censor the Internet, but it’s impossible to control all the people all the time – especially in a fragile, diverse nation of 1.3 billion. With 75 million members in the Chinese Communist Party, there are a lot of fingers to plug leaks, but eventually the dike will burst.

Brett M. Decker is editorial page editor of The Washington Times.