You probably didn’t read the headlines, but China is going around destroying religious shrines, including a Catholic shrine in Henan province, and Buddhist statue at a monastery in Tibet. Both sites have been the goal of religious pilgrimage.

Pilgrimages are not a Western phenomena. Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism all have sacred spots for pilgrimage.

But for Catholics, the favorite shrines are often in honor of Mary.

Now, every other day someone sees Mary on a tree trunk or Jesus on French toast. Such things are on the same level as seeing Elvis or Big foot: strange, funny, but don’t mean much.

But often pilgrimages are to shrines that have historical and religious meaning to those who travel.

Here in the Philippines, for almost four hundred hundreds of years, travelers have visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Bon Voyage (the good voyage) at Antipolo both on leaving to ask for Mary’s intercession of safety and on return to give thanks.

My husband made the pilgrimage every time he visited the Philippines. I go with him, it’s no big deal for me. But for him, it is to say thanks for his getting a job in America that allowed him to support and educate his extended family.

And our newest shrine, Our Lady Of Peace, commemorates the vision of the Virgin that protected the praying protesters from soldiers during the people power revolution.

True? Hallucination? Superstition? I report, you decide. But such stories have power to those who believe in them (note that Marcos’ soldiers didn’t shoot) and although as a doctor I scoff at miracles, nevertheless I’ve seen a few things that make me think that there is a grain of truth in these things.

But the Philippines is not the only Asian country that has such shrines. There is Our Lady of LaVang in Viet Nam, the shrine of the Martyrs at Mirinae in Korea, and several similar shrines in China.

The shrine that the Chinese government is planning to destroy commemorates local villagers and refuges who fled for their lives up a hill when their village was attacked by a mob during the Boxer rebellion. Attackers withdrew after seeing “beings of light” protecting the villagers; another story is that they saw a vision of the virgin.

Whatever the truth, to this day the ridge is called “the retreating range”, and although the shrine/church has been destroyed twice, by the Japanese and then by the Cultural revolution, locals have always rebuilt it.

The shrine is a site of an annual pilgrimage that attracts an estimated 40 000 people, even though the government “catholic” priests preach against the pilgrimage. (there are two “catholic” churches in China. One is under the government and legal, and the other is under the Pope and persecuted.) Recently the government appointed bishops have requested and received Vatican approval, which upset the government, so they have started beating up nuns and imprisoning priests who belong to the illegal churches.

Since persuasion is not working, the governor decided something stronger is needed:

May 11th last the secretary general of Henan province gave a personal order to cancel the pilgrimage and spread the order to the neighbouring provinces of Hebei and Shanxi.

To occupy the site and prevent any form of sit-in, the provincial government began holding military exercises in the area of the shrine on May 12, mobilizing over 700 soldiers. Still today all roads leading to the sanctuary are closed. All cars and pedestrians who pass by are stopped and searched.The provincial governor’s decision has shocked the faithful of the diocese….

China has a long dislike for religions that threaten the unity of the empire…not only from Christians but Buddhists and the Falun Gong movement.

The danger of religion to China is that they allow the discontented to unite under a single vision to rebel against the empire, a danger to unity whether it be the Buddhists of the 7th century of the the Taiping rebellion, a mixture of folk Buddhist beliefs and Christian millennial beliefs that resulted in a war that killed 20 million in the 1870’s.

There has been a recent upsurge in belief in China, with 20 percent of the population now claiming to practice Buddhism, and ten percent practicing Christianity; the highest rate of believers was in younger people and among those living in the more prosperous eastern regions of China.

So does this upsurge in belief threaten the communist government? Unlikely. But in a country that is trying to adjust to the modern world religion may be seen both as a way to strengthen morality and a way to rebel against corrupt officials. Given the ancient Chinese belief that a government needs the mandate of heaven to govern, and that corruption removes this mandate, one can see how the Chinese government might see any organized belief system as a threat to their monopoly on power.

Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket, and she posts articles on ethics and religion at Boinkie’s blog 
Be Sociable, Share!