DECEMBER 23, 2005

Nuns in China beaten in property dispute







Chinese police have detained 11 suspects in connection with the beating of 16 Chinese nuns in the city of Xi’an last month. Local officials have agreed to cover the entire medical expenses of the injured women following growing international pressure. 

The 16 Franciscan nuns were severely beaten by dozens of thugs with clubs while trying to prevent a former church building from being demolished by property developers. Chinese authorities initially tried to cover up the incident, but later took steps to ease the situation as anger grew abroad and in China. 

The Vatican issued a stern statement expressing “grief and disapproval” over the beatings. “The violence committed in Xi’an against several defenseless nuns can only be firmly condemned,” it said. Forty members of the Italian Parliament called on the Italian Foreign Ministry to deliver a formal protest to the Chinese government, and a vice president of the European Parliament denounced the assault. The bishops’ conference of the United States also wrote a stern letter to the Chinese Embassy in Washington. 

While the local media blacked out news of the beatings, there was some angry discussion of the incident on Chinese Web sites and blogs before the government ordered a halt. The Web site, which carried in-depth reports and photos of the incident, was down for several hours last week. When it returned on line, all news of the beatings was gone. On Nov. 27, some 600 Catholics in Xi’an held a rally to protest the beatings and the sale of the land. 

According to sources close to the Southern Cathedral, at least five of the members of the Congregation of the Franciscan Sacred Heart Missionaries were in serious condition after being attacked by assailants trying to demolish the former site of the diocesan School of the Rosary. The building stood inside the same compound as the Southern Cathedral, Xi’an’s state-approved Catholic church. 

The Southern Cathedral, which was established in 1716, owned the land and ran a Catholic primary school there before the Communists took power in 1949. The building was confiscated by the Communist Party in 1952, when it was turned into a state school. 

In the 1980s, the Chinese government began to return confiscated church property to its rightful owners, but many convents, schools and hospitals were not returned. The state-run school moved several years ago, and recently city authorities sold the land to a developer. At the time of the attack, the diocese and the local government were arguing the case in a Xi’an court. 

On Nov. 22, the nuns had stopped workers from demolishing the school. However, the next night a work crew arrived after dark and began to tear down the building. A group of nuns ran out to stop the workers, but were attacked by about 40 thugs, carrying wooden batons with white towels wrapped around their wrists. 

It’s not clear if the men had been ordered to attack the nuns by the city government or by the development company that was anxious to begin construction. Several of the men also broke through the church gate and began to punch and kick the nuns. Police arrived but apparently took no immediate action. A source quoted by The Washington Post said that the police rebuked the nuns for attempting to block the demolition. 

The city government attempted to placate the Catholics by offering to sell the building to the diocese for 6.5 million yuan ($804,000), an offer that further angered the Catholic community. 

Anthony Lam Sui-ki, an expert on the Chinese church with Hong Kong’s Holy Spirit Study Center, agues that the church should not pay for the land. “There’s no need to pay for something that already belongs to the church,” Mr. Lam told NCR. “It’s not fair to buy back what’s already yours.” 

Catholics in Xi’an say they fear attacks. “Even now, it is still pitch black in the church,” said a statement by the Xi’an diocese dated Dec. 2. “Some believers even dare not come to the church for services or rituals.” The statement said further that the hospitalized nuns suffered “serious injuries both physically and emotionally,” adding that the women feared they would be attacked again. “Their safety is under serious threat,” it said. 

Several of the nuns remain in serious condition. Sr. Dong Jianian, 41, underwent a five-hour spinal cord surgery, and Sr. Cheng Jing, 34, has lost sight in one eye. Sr. Zan Hongfang, 34, was released from hospital with a broken shoulder in a cast. While the Xi’an Education Department, which sold the church land, initially offered just $371 to cover the medical costs of each of those injured, the department has reportedly since promised to cover the entire cost of treatment. 

© 2013 Paul J. Mooney