(Hong Kong) "In the middle of Tibet, in areas away from the main roads, which are often accessible only by foot, Tibetan Catholics have preserved their faith, even though they no longer have a priest for more than 50 years." The Vatican expert Marco Tosatti is concerned in an article with the destiny of a forgotten Catholic community on the "roof of the world." Tibet, from a European perspective, is a land of mystery and unfulfilled longings, known mainly because of the Himalayas with the highest mountain peaks in the world and the seemingly mysterious Lamaist Buddhism. But Tibet also has a Christian history that is as old as the Buddhist.
Buddhism arrived in the 6th century to Tibet for the first time and started there in the centuries that followed spread. Christianity arrived at the same time, so 1,500 years ago for the first time in the barren highlands, as the historian of religion Philip Jenkins confirms. It was the Church of the East of the Nestorian Christians who brought the gospel even then to China. In 780 Timothy, the Catholicos of the Church of the East, wrote as "the Holy Spirit has anointed a metropolitan for the Turks in those days, and we are preparing the ordination of another for the Tibetans."
Catholic Villages in the Himalayas - Secret Catholics in Japan
The plant of the Christian mission was pulled over the past fifteen hundred years in China and in Tibet again and again by political upheaval. The situation today of Tibetan Catholics in their survival in the isolation recalls that of the Japanese Catholics who survived almost 300 years from the 16th to 19th centuries in the underground, and without a priest, completely hidden.
The existence of hidden Tibetan Catholics became famous recently by the French travel writer Constantin de Slizewicz who has lived in the PRC for several years. In Les peuples oubliés du Tibet (The Forgotten People of Tibet), he reports on the middle location in the Himalayan village Baihanluo. It can be reached by mule tracks only on foot or in the saddle of a pack animal. In Baihanluo is a church in the middle of Tibet. It is made of wood and dates from the late 19th century. It was built by Catholic missionaries of Société des Missions Etrangères de Paris (MEP). The Society of Foreign Missions of Paris was one of the 17th century missionary orders, to whom the evangelization of Tibet had been entrusted. The French Indochina missionaries followed the course of the valleys up out into the highlands of Tibet and founded "Persian Missions", as Mission offices in particularly dangerous and wild areas were described.
In 1949 the Communist Party came to rule China, which was soon followed by the invasion of Tibet. As already several times in China and Tibet's history all foreign missionaries were expelled or murdered by the new rulers. The local Christians had to submit and usually renounce their faith, if they wanted to stay alive. The Communists did not act differently.
The secret hope that one day the priests will come back
"The churches were closed or converted into storehouses or schools. The Christians had no right to carry religious articles. They were threatened with the arrest," writes de Slizewicz. Those who had a leadership role among Christians, was persecuted and interned in concentration camps called laogai, where they had to perform forced labor.
Some areas that are particularly isolated and were far away from the political centers, escaped the wave of persecution. Some remote villages even preserved their own churches. Catholics no longer have their priests. In this regard, the Communists had done a great job with their hunt. For half a century the Catholics persevered without priests. They gather in their churches for prayer, as taught to them by the French missionaries and long for the times when they had a priest.
Despite the severe persecution, the Catholic faith has survived in the rural population in the underground. And in spite of the radical break that the communist regime imposed upon Catholics 50 years ago, by taking all their priests from them, "the Tibetans felt drawn closer to God" as de Slizewicz reported. "They have dedicated their lives to the faith. These Tibetans converted to Catholicism do not do it as half-baked. In nearly 50 years without a priest and sacraments, they have not forgotten a word of what they were taught by the missionaries in the last century." And they hope that one day a priest will come back to them.
They maintain the graves of the missionaries - In the nativity scene are a yak and mule
In the most remote villages they cultivate with devotion the tombs of the first French missionaries, they have never ceased to pray, celebrate Easter and Christmas, the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Instead ox and ass they put a Yak and a female mule in the nativity scene. Thus they have not forgotten the Latin and pray the Our Father in the Church language of Rome.
In Baihanluo which is situated in the midst of the highest mountains in the world on a ledge, among the 400-500 people in the Catholic village community of de Slizewicz there still lives a vivid memory of Brother Zacharias, a catechist and lay missionary from the people of the Lahu, who live in the mountains of Yunnan and speak a Sino-Tibetan language. Zacharias was in his mid-40s when the Communists took power. Before the persecution he fled to Nationalist China, then Formosa, now Taiwan. When he retired, he wanted to return and resume his job as a catechist at their homeland. He slipped in to the hidden Catholics of Tibet, among whom he taught and died ten years ago at the age of one hundred years. "Zacharias was in all the churches pouring holy water from Lourdes in the water," said the residents. Lourdes and the Marian apparitions were well known among them. "If someone fell ill, he was given a drop of it, and three days later he was well again."
In addition to the hidden villages of Catholics there are is also a vibrant underground Church in Tibet
In the outlying churches the damp books left behind by French missionaries are still carried. Among them are prayer books in the Tibetan language, which were printed in the late 19th century in Hong Kong. The mountain Catholics are supsicious of the outside world. Even with the underground Church loyal to Rome in the more developed areas of Tibet they have no contact.
As Deng Xiaoping, Mao's successor granted opening in the state and party leadership, previously destroyed churches were rebuilt in some places, as in Zhongding, a more accessible valley of Tibet. There Annet Génestier buried, a French missionary of the Puy de Dome, is buried, who died in 1937 in Zhongding. Catholics maintain his fife as a souvenir of his arduous missionary journeys through Tibet. Today there is the 39-year-old Chinese priest Francis Han Sheng. Because of state paternalism, all Catholics in the regime are forced to obey the Patriotic Association, there are besides the hidden Catholic villages in Tibet, also a lively underground Church true to Rome. Since of the Chinese occupation of Tibet, Catholic association close to the regime is irrelevant in the highlands.
Francis Hang Sheng says that there are more than 10,000 Catholics in Tibet. There is a lack especially of priests and resources. He supervises 16 churches in the area, celebrates Holy Mass, offers the sacraments and strengthens the faithful.
Text: Giuseppe Nardi
Image: Vatican Insider / Robert Hutchinson / China Daily News (screenshots)
Image: Vatican Insider / Robert Hutchinson / China Daily News (screenshots)
Trans: Tancred email@example.com