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Last Updated: Sunday, 23 September 2007, 11:04 GMT 12:04 UK
China Catholics throng to church
By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

View of the front entrance of Southern Cathedral
Worshippers go to state-controlled as well as underground churches
Beijing's Southern Cathedral has the kind of congregation many Catholic churches in Europe can only dream of attracting.

At Sunday morning Mass, the church is overflowing with worshippers. Those that cannot squeeze in sit on benches outside.

There are no official ties between China and the Vatican, despite attempts by both sides over recent months to overcome their differences.

But that does not seem to matter to the faithful at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to give the Beijing church its full name.

The solid-looking brick cathedral, founded in 1605 by Jesuit Matteo Ricci, is the base of newly-appointed Beijing Bishop Father Joseph Li Shan.

I know there are problems between underground and official churches but, as far as I'm concerned, I just believe in God
Zhao Xudong
Graphic designer

Father Joseph, whose appointment was approved by the Vatican, is in charge of one of China's main dioceses. It has a flock of at least 50,000 people.

Hundreds of these worship at the elegant Southern Cathedral. Inside, it is lit by chandeliers and sunlight filtered through stained glass windows.

From an office situated to one side of the cathedral, Sister Yu Shuqin told the BBC that the Catholic diocese had a vibrant congregation.

Religion for visas?

Although money now seems to be the new god in China, there are still those who seek spiritual salvation in the Catholic Church, she said, as the sound of singing drifted in through an open window.

"The more money some people make, the emptier they feel about their lives. They feel life has no meaning," said Sister Yu, who works in the cathedral's foreign affairs office.

Zhu Zhijn
The underground church is more traditional
Zhu Zhijin
The diocese runs a total of 19 churches, a seminary, a convent, a clinic and a school. Its flock includes old and young, and is drawn from different social groups.

Sister Yu said worshippers came to the church for a variety of reasons. Some of these are particular to China.

"There are many Chinese people who are not Christians, but they go abroad and meet believers who they respect. When they return home they become Christians themselves," she said.

There are also those that become Catholics because they believe it will help them get visas to travel abroad, added Sister Yu.

She was reluctant to talk about the problems between China and the Vatican, which seem to centre on who has the authority to select bishops in China.

But members of the cathedral congregation were more open.

Message route

Zhu Zhijin, originally from Chengde in nearby Hebei Province, was at the Southern Cathedral with two friends for morning Mass.

The Chinese teacher said she also attends unofficial, underground Catholic churches in Beijing, often held in people's homes.

Joseph Li Shan
Joseph Li Shan has a large congregation to look after
Worshippers at these churches do not want to hear the word of God filtered through China's state-run churches, administered by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association since 1957.

"This kind of church is government-controlled and has no power," said Ms Zhu, pointing to the Southern Cathedral's towering facade. "The underground church is more traditional."

Still, the 24-year-old's views do not stop her attending Mass at state-run churches.

Other Chinese worshippers at the cathedral, such as graphic designer Zhao Xudong, also try to keep politics out of religion.

The 25-year-old, originally from Baotou in the Chinese autonomous region of Inner Mongolia, said he knew about underground churches - some of his friends attended - but he did not go himself.

"I know there are problems between underground and official churches but, as far as I'm concerned, I just believe in God. It doesn't have anything to do with me."

With that, Mr Zhao walked off to join three friends who were preparing to join hundreds more worshippers for the next Mass.

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