Celebrating Faith in China’s Underground Churches

By Hannah Beech for TIME

Faith springs from even the most barren ground. Amid desiccated farmland and factories casting fumes into the sky, a flock of worshippers celebrates Holy Week. Altar boys parade with palm fronds, a priest swings a thurible, a young woman joins her hands in prayer.

These are emblems of Catholic devotion worldwide. But this 1,000-strong congregation in northern China’s Hebei province is illegal. Officially atheist, China’s ruling Communist Party only allows religion to operate within tightly controlled parameters. An entity called the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association is allowed to exist but it does not recognize the Vatican’s authority and must hew to the Chinese government’s command. For roughly half of Chinese Catholics, such a cleaving from papal authority cannot be. So these faithful worship in so-called underground churches that face a constant threat of closure or even jail time for their priests.

Photographer Adam Dean, who has lived in China for eight years and has also documented the nation’s minority Muslim population, captured the liturgy of the Hebei flock under the guidance of priest Dong Baolu. Once, half of this village was Catholic, the result of foreign missionaries who spread the faith deep into the furrows of rural China. But the 1949 communist revolution, along with devastating political campaigns in the decades afterward, robbed the village of Catholic worshippers. Many Catholic churches were pressured to join the government’s Patriotic Association—if they wanted to survive. Father Dong has refused to give in. “[The Chinese Communist Party] says we have religious freedom, but they only allow us to be free within a circle they drew,” he says. “They want to lead us. But those who don’t believe in God cannot lead us.”

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