BEIJING (ChurchMilitant.com) - As the underground Church in China faces increased danger from a worsening government crackdown on religion, the Vatican has sent masks to the country to impede the coronavirus from spreading.
New rules designed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to assume complete control over religious groups went into effect Saturday.
Revised two years ago, the CCP's Regulations on Religious Affairs (RRA) will have a debilitating effect on Chinese Christians, especially underground Catholics.
The rules include immense fines for believers belonging to non-CCP-sanctioned communities such as the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, closure and seizure of sites deemed illegal and school expulsion for any attempts at proselytism.
"The CCP's purpose is very clear. It is to change the Catholic Church into a group that belongs to them. These rules will push the Church into serious dangers," warned Fr. Li in Hebei province.
Consisting of six chapters and 41 articles, article 17 of the RRA demands:
Religious organizations must spread the principles and policies of the Chinese Communist Party, as well as national laws, regulations, rules to religious personnel and religious citizens; educating religious personnel and religious citizens to support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party; supporting the socialist system; [and] adhering to and following the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics ... .
These rules cover every aspect from offices to financial administration at national and local levels, but many from the underground Catholic Church in China will remain steadfast in their adherence to the Faith.
Cao Ruoser, a member of the underground Catholic Church in Jiangsu said there is nothing for the CCP to close down:
We have been oppressed by the Chinese Communist Party. They do not consider the church as a place to respect God, and nor do they accept the position of priests. We cannot accept it. Our members are united. We come together and attend Mass, so this method has no effect on us.
Though there could be some impact for underground communities that still have churches, most of "the underground groups have lived a religious life without a church for many years, and at most they have returned to those origins," he added.
The situation for the underground Church has worsened since the secretive Vatican-China agreement was reached in September 2018.
"Before there was an agreement, there was a kind of compromise on many points; for example, the underground Church could have their church buildings and the underground priests, even in the cities, could say Masses for the faithful, even though the law is against that," Cdl. Joseph Zen told Church Militant in July 2019.
"But the authorities, for a long time, never enforced those laws. Now, they enforce those laws. So, it is a much harsher persecution after the agreement; it is terrible," he explained.
Now the CCP is enforcing even harsher laws with the enforcement of its RRA.
The Vatican, which has remained silent regarding increasing religious persecution in China, sent medical masks to the country to thwart the spread of the coronavirus.
International Business Times reports the Vatican sent over 700,000 masks in response to China's appeal. The joint initiative of the Office of Papal Charities and the Chinese Church in Italy in collaboration with the Vatican pharmacy cost over $2 million. According to one medical professional, a standard surgical mask would not provide effective protection from the virus.
The masks were sent to the provinces of Hubei, Zhejiang and Fujian — Fujian being the same province where Bp. Vincenzo Guo Xijin has been reported to be homeless for persisting in the Faith and refusing to kowtow to the CCP.
Bishop Xijin had escaped CCP authorities in November 2019 after refusing to join the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
Pope Francis has been reticent about the increased persecution for underground Catholics in China.
After the Angelus on Jan. 26, the pontiff closed with prayers for the Chinese dealing with the coronavirus:
I also wish to be close to and to pray for the victims of the virus that has broken out in China. May the Lord receive the deceased in His peace, comfort the families and support the great commitment of the Chinese community, which has already been set in motion to fight this epidemic.
In reporting on the Vatican mask initiative, Vatican News also said evidence suggests "the new virus's fatality rate is relatively low."