Chinese provincial officials order Catholic media outlet to stop reporting about pilgrimages

Believers take part in a weekend mass at an underground Catholic church in Tianjin November 10, 2013. Picture taken November 10, 2013. | Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

A Catholic media outlet in China's Hebei province was reportedly ordered to stop reporting about the Month of Mary pilgrimages that are taking place across the country.

According to UCA News, the media outlet Faith Weekly has been given verbal notification by the Hebei Provincial Ethnic and Religious Department to stop reporting about the pilgrimages on its newspaper on its website.

Several articles about local and inter-provincial pilgrimages have been submitted to Faith Weekly from websites in other dioceses, but the media outlet had not published any of the stories.

Catholics have expressed concern that a fresh crackdown on religion has been launched in Hebei. "If the pro-government Faith Weekly cannot report pilgrimages, it might be regarded as a warning that religious policy applied to Hebei will be tightened after recent suppression against churches in Zhejiang and Henan provinces," said a Catholic who is only identified as Peter.

He noted that the provinces of Zhejiang and Henan, which both had a substantial population of Christians, had also been targeted in the past.

Statistics have shown that Hebei had the largest number of Catholics among the three provinces, with almost one million people belonging to the denomination. Henan's Catholic population has been estimated at 300,000. Zhejiang is said to have about 10,000 Catholics.

"If the large Christian provinces are suppressed, the small ones are easier to handle," Peter said, according to UCA News.

Apart from banning coverage of pilgrimages, officials in Hebei have also warned schools in Changzhou city against allowing students to take part in a pilgrimage to Ludezhuang.

The pilgrimage, organized by a local church, usually takes place on the second Sunday of May, with thousands of people visiting the pilgrimage site in Luderzhuang to honor the Virgin Mary.

UCA News reported that the Hejian Education and Sports Bureau had declared May 12–13 as school days so that students would not be able to join the pilgrimage. A notice from the government agency also prohibited students from taking a sick leave on pilgrimage days.

The Chinese government had started implementing the revised Religious Affairs Regulations back in February.

The renewed crackdown had initially targeted house churches in Henan, with officials using verbal threats in order to force church members to move. Apart from house churches, provincial officials also shut down kindergartens and prohibited minors from attending Mass and church services.

Some Chinese Christians have expressed fears that the crackdown in Henan was only the testing phase, and that the government is now moving toward the total elimination of house churches across the country.