China Priests, Nuns, Lock Themselves in Building

December 21, 2005 12:00 am Last Updated: December 21, 2005 12:00 am

BEIJING – Chinese police have surrounded a group of Catholic priests and nuns who have refused to leave a building whose ownership they are disputing with the local government, one of the priests said on Wednesday. The building, in the former Italian concession in the port of Tianjin, was acquired before the Communist revolution in 1949, but a few years later was seized by the government, priest Wu Liqiang said.

It was supposed to have been returned to the church in 1993, but instead its management was taken over by another government department, though rent was paid, Wu told Reuters by mobile telephone from Tianjin, an hour's drive southeast of Beijing.

Wu, like the almost 50 other priests and nuns who have locked themselves into the building, are members of China's official Catholic church which does not recognise the Pope.

“We've been writing to the government for years asking about our building. But there's been no result,” Wu said from inside the building.

Last week the group went to Tianjin from the northern province of Shanxi, where they are based, and protested in front of the city government but got nowhere.

So they decided to occupy the building, he said.

Beaten By Police

Police tried to force them out, injuring several priests and sending one nun to hospital with head wounds, Wu said, adding that they had been given an ultimatum of midday on Wednesday to leave.

“We are prepared in our hearts to be beaten again,” he said after the deadline had passed. “We have agreed that we're not leaving until we get a solution to this problem.

“There've been no clashes today, but there are lots of police cars outside and they are watching.”

Tianjin government officials were not available for comment.

Chinese police regularly harass members of the underground Roman Catholic Church, but generally leave services and activities of the official – though strictly controlled – church alone.

Beijing has had no ties with the Vatican since 1951 and insists relations cannot be resumed unless the Holy See severs links with self-ruled Taiwan, which China claims as a breakaway province.

Land disputes are becoming increasingly common in China. Residents often take to the streets in protest at buildings being grabbed by governments or developers without proper compensation.

An argument over land appropriated for a wind farm in southern China erupted into violence this month, and the government has admitted three protesters were shot dead by police.

Residents have put the death toll at as many as 20.