Walking fine line between faith, public service

  • April 19, 2015

If you ever visit Tiananmen Square in Beijing on a Sunday and decide you would like to attend Mass at Our Lady of China, you will have to catch Line Two from the Qianmen subway station just south of the square and travel six stations to Dongzhimen. Walk about five minutes west from Dongzhimen and you will find yourself at the front gate of the Canadian Embassy. Inside the embassy on Sundays expatriates from Africa, Europe, Canada and elsewhere gather to form their own parish.

The parish is a real community engaged in works of charity and mercy — visiting isolated elderly people in surrounding villages, helping pregnant women who face pressure from local health authorities to abort if it is their second child and helping HIV-positive Chinese access health services.

If a Catholic parish seems like an odd undertaking for a Canadian embassy, former Canadian ambassador to China David Mulroney is quite aware of just how odd it is. As a Catholic in the foreign service, Mulroney was constantly aware of the line he must draw between his faith and the necessarily secular institution where he worked.

“It’s a secular institution (the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development). It’s a very Canadian institution,” Mulroney told The Catholic Register. “But sometimes you can feel a little bit like a stranger in a strange land as a believer if you’re in the Canadian government or any large secular institution.”

Among many tales in his new book, Middle Power, Middle Kingdom, Mulroney tells how he negotiated the fine line between his faith and the secular world of government and still ended up hosting a Catholic parish inside his embassy.

“It’s OK to be a Catholic and to talk about your faith,” said Mulroney.

Mulroney didn’t come up with the idea for Our Lady of China parish at the embassy. A Vincentian priest he had known in Taiwan came to him with the proposal. Beijing is no modest village. Its metropolitan area is home to more than 20 million people. Everything is always under construction. It’s complicated and difficult to get around.

Within Beijing there are only a few Catholic churches where Mass can be found, and in an atmosphere where Chinese Catholics are looked on with suspicion by their own government, it’s not always good news for Chinese parishioners when foreigners turn up.

When the Vincentian friend asked Mulroney whether the Canadian embassy would be willing to host a Mass for ex-pats, Mulroney agonized. He wanted to make sure he wasn’t using his position as ambassador or the embassy’s resources to favour his own faith. It had to be entirely a volunteer effort from stacking chairs to coffee and cake. And Mulroney couldn’t be in charge. A Catholic in Beijing with the Public Health Agency of Canada, Dr. David Li, agreed to head up the Our Lady of China parish council.

Mulroney also ensured that the same opportunity was offered to other faith groups, “as long as there was a Canadian connection.”

“My deep regret was that we couldn’t open it up to Chinese Catholics as well,” said Mulroney.

But attending a Mass or any other sort of religious gathering in China without explicit permission from China’s department of religious affairs is illegal. If the Chinese came to Our Lady of China they would be breaking the law and liable for arrest.

“It would also mean that Mass would be shut down after the first week,” noted Mulroney. “People would be arrested. The priest would be kicked out (of the country). That was a line I couldn’t cross as a public servant. I wasn’t sent to create a crisis in Canada-China relations.”

The Our Lady of China congregation often topped 200. On Palm Sunday the group gathered in the courtyard of the embassy before processing in, waving their palm fronds and singing.

“I would see all the people on the street looking to the embassy gates, and I would see the guards — we had local guards as well as Canadian guards — but all these local people looking and watching,” Mulroney recalled. “I really hoped that this lights a little spark and they wonder about this and ask about it. Maybe this will have some small impact.”

Mulroney learned early in his 2009-to-2012 posting as ambassador to China that the Catholic Church is growing in China despite enormous obstacles. Just about any form of evangelization or religious education in China can be classed as illegal. No form of religious commitment in China is considered compatible with Communist Party membership or the exercise of any public office. Chinese Catholics are shut out of all important networks of guang shi — the reciprocal ties of friendship that keep Chinese business, media, academic and government circles functioning. Catholics in China rarely rise above drone status within the Chinese hives of industry and agriculture.

When Mulroney asked the archbishop of Beijing how it was his Church was growing, Archbishop Joseph Li Shan told him that people see pictures of weddings in magazines, or see Christmas and Easter depicted in movies or referenced in books. It occurs to them there might be more to these happy occasions than just a peculiar Western holiday or custom. They come to the Church asking what these things mean.

The public witness of Our Lady of China might not have lasted much more than five minutes on Palm Sunday, but it is simply impossible that it escaped the notice or curiosity of the Chinese.

When Mulroney arrived in China in 2009 a period of relative liberalization of religious policy was already over, and it seemed Chinese officials were almost in competition to see who could be the most severely disapproving of religion in general and the most obstructionist when it came to the lives of individual faith communities. Catholics suffered as Communist Party officials were put in charge of Catholic seminaries, and even dared to teach philosophy and theology they did not understand.

But Tibetan Buddhists and Uyghur Muslims have had it worse as the Beijing government tries to squelch any talk of autonomy for these large minorities within China. 

Mulroney is supportive of the idea of the Office of Religious Freedom set up in 2013. But he worries that much of the civil service is suspicious if not hostile to this specific emphasis within Canada’s human rights policy.

“It’s a great idea, but it’s not being pursued as fully as it should be,” said Mulroney.

He encountered foreign service officials who asked whether the Office of Religious Freedom was equally committed to protecting the Chinese right not to believe.

“I said, I think they sort of have that already. Last time I checked, that wasn’t under so much threat,” Mulroney said.

Andrew Bennett, Canada’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom, tells The Catholic Register he does not encounter the kind of resistance Mulroney mentions in his book. There were “probably some trepidations and some unease” about the office before he was appointed, Bennett said. But since stepping into the job he has been able to speak with DFATD officials as one civil servant to another.

“It’s about integrating the debate around religious freedom firmly into Canada’s human rights policy framework,” Bennett said.

With a $4.25-million per year budget for programs, Bennett is trying to address religious persecution around the world — from Boko Haram’s campaign of bombings and kidnappings in Nigeria to Iran’s theocratic control of every aspect of daily life. Within this broad portfolio, China has a special place, said Bennett.

“China is kind of an equal opportunity persecutor. They tend to target everybody, whether you are a Tibetan Buddhist, a Uyghur Muslim, or a Falun Gong practitioner, or a Catholic, or an Evangelical Protestant,” said Bennett.

But Bennett rejects the idea that speaking up on human rights and religious freedom in China could pose a danger to Canada’s commercial interests in an increasingly critical market.

“When we engage on religious freedom in China, there’s a whole level of nuance that needs to be factored in,” Bennett said. “When it comes to addressing religious freedom in China, we try to find a way to effect change based on a little internal doctrine we’ve developed in the office. We call it the doctrine of strategic invisibility. In other words, we don’t want to do more harm than good.”

Mulroney’s own approach to religious freedom and human rights in China is rooted in his Catholic faith.

“Ultimately, a faith perspective and a Catholic perspective provides the most complete and satisfying answer as to why you believe human beings are given human rights,” he said. “Because we believe in the universality of our human nature, which is grounded in our relationship with God.”

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