China locks down city over Covid, says cluster may involve Catholic congregation
Lockdown measures are being imposed in a northern Chinese province near Beijing, which is due to host some events in next year's Winter Olympics. Coronavirus cases have more than doubled in the region, prompting authorities to suspend rail, air and road connections to the city of Shijiazhuang.
The National Health Commission on Thursday announced 51 new Covid-19 cases had been confirmed in Hebei province, bringing the total to 90 since Sunday. Most have been in the Hebei capital Shijiazhuang, although cases have also been recorded in the city of Xingtai.
Rail, air and highway connections to Shijiazhuang, home to at least 10 million people, have been suspended and prevention and control measured tightened over urban communities and villages in the area.
Classes have been suspended and school dormitories isolated.
On Friday the Communist Party-controlled Global Times reported that “Some Covid-19 confirmed patients in N.China's Shijiazhuang outbreak attended recent religious activities.”
The newspaper said that “Some elderly patients in a local village had attended religious activities regularly at a villager's home before they were confirmed (positive with Covid-19) in the latest outbreak in Shijiazhuang.”
But, says the newspaper, the Catholic church in Shijiazhuang has been "closing religious venues, stopping group religious activities and postponing openings of religious schools."
Curiously, the paper points out that the villages of Xiaoguozhuang, Liujiazuo and Nanqiaozhai, "which are related to the current Shijiazhuang outbreak, "are not ‘Catholic villages’ and there are only few Catholic believers in the village." The villages do not have Catholic venues and do not hold Catholic gatherings.”
Still, Massimo Introvigne, editor of Bitter Winter, a website that researches religious persecution in China told RFI that it is “not impossible” that Beijing may use Covid-19 as an excuse to crack down on religious activities.
In an article published on 30 November last year, Bitter Winter describes the increasing attacks against Catholics who are not registered with the official Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association – an organisation under the Communist Party that is designed to control catholics, facing "increasing abuse" by authorities.
It describes several incidents near Shijiazhuang and other places earlier last year, where unregistered churches were forced to shut down.
According to the Hong Kong-based Holy Spirit Study Center, there are currently some 12 million Catholics in China, but over half if this number recognize the Vatican and the pope as god’s representative on earth. Beijing frowns on this and has no official diplomatic tie with the Holy See, although negotiations on the appointment of bishops are in progress.
In mentioning the link with Catholic gatherings, “the CCP may not want to admit they do not totally control the churches," says Introvigne, pointing out that the infected believers may be part of "an official 'Patriotic' Catholic congregation and in theory they are strictly regulated.”
Meanwhile, the increase in cases comes as China and the World Health Organization are negotiating terms for a visit by WHO investigators looking into the origins of the coronavirus, which was first detected in the central city of Wuhan in late 2019.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Tuesday he was disappointed at the lack of permission for the experts to travel to Wuhan, but Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said China’s disease experts were currently busy with multiple small-scale clusters and outbreaks reported in the past couple of weeks.
“To ensure that the work of the global experts group in China is successful, we need to carry out the necessary procedures and relevant concrete plans. Currently both sides are still in negotiations on this,” Hua told reporters at a briefing on Wednesday.
China has reported a total of 87,278 cases of Covid-19 and 4,634 deaths.
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