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CHINA. Hangzhou. Father Bao Lu, in his church in central Hangzhou. During the Cultural Revolution, the church was used as a prison. (Sean Gallagher Photography)
CHINA. Hangzhou. Father Bao Lu, in his church in central Hangzhou. During the Cultural Revolution, the church was used as a prison. (Sean Gallagher Photography)

Church in China survived 60 years of Maoism Add to ...

As the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China approaches, one of the country's oldest Christian churches is a construction site, where workers hustle to install a new marble altar and slap a fresh coat of paint on the rebuilt confessional. The disturbed serenity inside the Immaculate Conception Cathedral is a fitting birthday state for a building that has seen little but turmoil in those six decades.

The construction doesn't bother Father Bao Lu, the long-serving priest of the only Catholic church in this historic coastal city. The fact that the 350-year-old cathedral exists at all - its stone Italian-style columns standing in Old World contrast to the ultramodern city that has grown up around it - is a miracle in his eyes, surviving due to a bizarre twist of fate "The jails were right here," he says, as he walks through the chapel, pointing at white stone pillars that marked the lines between the 12 prison cells the church housed for a decade after it was taken over by the Public Security Bureau, China's feared internal security force, during the Cultural Revolution.

"It was used as a detention centre for thieves. You could say the church survived because the Public Security Bureau was using it. Otherwise, the Red Guards probably would have destroyed it."

The 1960s and 1970s were dark days for Chinese believers of all faiths. Deemed incompatible with Marxist-Leninist thought, and a threat to the new China that Mao Zedong was trying to build, organized religion was almost completely annihilated.

Before the Communist takeover in 1949, Hangzhou had been known as one of the most religious cities in China, hosting more than 400 places of worship. Most of them were Buddhist temples, including the city's signature Lingyin Temple, but there were also Taoist temples, churches and mosques. But less than a month after the proclamation of the People's Republic, the Zhejiang Daily newspaper announced a campaign to empty the city's temples.

The city's monks, priests and nuns were branded "parasites" and shipped to the countryside and put to work. Holy sites were destroyed, temples sacked. The Lingyin Temple was spared the wrath of the Red Guards only by the personal intervention of Premier Zhou Enlao.

The restrictions on religion were gradually loosened after the death of Mao and the Church of the Immaculate Conception reopened in 1982, though only a brave few of the 3,000 parishioners it once claimed came back to those first masses. When Father Bao Lu (his name is derived from St. Paul) arrived a year later, he says there were about 100 people who regularly came to the main Sunday celebration.

These days, the church is enjoying a small, but quiet renaissance, though the state still keeps close tabs on the comings and goings at churches around the country and bans proselytizing. (Because the Vatican recognizes the government in Taiwan rather than Beijing, the Catholic Church in China has no links to Rome, though it follows the same mass and the Pope is spoken of with reverence.) Father Bao Lu's congregation has grown to perhaps 1,000 regular attendees at Sunday mass, and the city has even suggested that he erect a sign on the street letting people know that Immaculate Conception is indeed a functioning church.

But while the rest of the country is consumed with the 60th anniversary celebrations, Father Bao Lu says the birthday won't get a mention in his sermons this week. "We will pray for the country, but we won't mention [the anniversary]in mass," he says carefully. "Politics don't interfere with our beliefs."

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