On a windy evening in the hills of Mindong in the south-eastern Chinese province of Fujian the faithful are gathering for a service at one of the many underground churches.
This is the Catholic heartland of China and the followers here pledge loyalty to the Pope and the Vatican, not the Chinese Government and its sponsored church called the Patriotic Church.
The Catholics of Mindong are in silent rebellion against a deal that is expected within months.
It will re-establish relations between China and the Vatican that were cut by the Communist Party 70 years ago.
China wants more power to choose bishops and the Vatican wants a greater stake and access in what could soon be the biggest Christian country in the world.
There are an estimated 100 million Christians in China but most are Protestants.
Catholics in China number about 12 million and are split down the middle between the Patriotic Church and the underground Church who fear they will lose their religious rights in the landmark deal.
Underground Bishops operate without Government approval
The underground Catholics at Mindong are in the firing line and more than 1,000 turned up in act of strength and defiance at last Wednesday’s service.
Their Vatican-appointed Bishop, Guo Xijin, was detained at the start of holy week by Chinese authorities. He will not be celebrating Easter mass and has been taken on an “enforced holiday”.
Instead, the Chinese Authorities have told the faithful at Mindong they will install their own leader, Bishop Zhan Silu. The locals will not accept him and the Vatican has previously declared his consecration illegal.
So far the Chinese Government has appointed seven Bishops but up to 40 Rome-backed underground Bishops operate without Government approval.
Privately the Mindong parishioners told the ABC “they can’t survive without Bishop Guo and they want him back”. They have prayed for his safe and speedy return.
For the moment Father Zhu Ruci, Bishop Guo’s deputy, has taken on the church leadership.
“We follow the Pope and the Vatican so the Government doesn’t recognise us and regards us as illegal. But now we’re concerned about compromises the Vatican may make,” he said.
“We hope they don’t sacrifice us and betray us for this deal.”
It has been reported that the Vatican asked Bishop Guo to stand aside for China-appointed Bishop Zhan Silu.
Father Zhu Ruci said he was adamant they would not accept any deal that takes away their rightful leaders and religious freedoms.
He has already been jailed twice for a total of three years and is prepared to go to prison again for his beliefs.
“I’d rather go to prison. When I was in prison, I told them, ‘If you want me to change my belief, or to abandon my principle, I have to say sorry I can’t’,” he said.
SOURCE: Matthew Carney