Nuns haunted by attack in land dispute
Chan Siu-sin meets the Catholic sisters who were beaten by thugs as they defended church property from developers
Catholic nun Cheng Jing sees spots before her eyes, and the vision in her right eye is so poor objects held at arm's length are blurred. It has been that way since she and 16 other nuns were beaten by thugs during a land dispute in Xian last November.
Sister Cheng cannot focus on anything - a book, television or a person - for more than five minutes. But she says: 'As long as God willed this to happen, then I'm willing [to accept it].'
The 34-year-old native of Qi county in Shanxi is still suffering the physical and psychological effects of the attack. Every time she passes by the church land where the beatings took place, the memories flood back.
Sister Cheng was temporarily living in a convent belonging to the Franciscan Missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which shares a site with the St Francis Cathedral in Xian , and preparing to take her permanent vows when her life was turned upside down on the night of November 23.
Thugs armed with batons attacked Sister Cheng and 16 other nuns while they were guarding a nearby plot of land, which had historically belonged to the church, in an attempt to have it handed back to the diocese.
In 1952, the Xian city government confiscated the Rosary Girls' High School managed by the missionaries, and replaced it with the Five-Star Street Primary School on a 1,800 square metre site. The school also 'occupied' another 238 square metres of church land - which did not fall into the category of land that could be confiscated - for a playground.
Mainland religious policy requires enterprises which occupy church properties - except public institutions such as schools and hospitals - to return them to the churches.
In 2003, the school was relocated and the overseeing Lianhu district Education Bureau announced it was keeping the site for a kindergarten. But rumours then started circulating that the bureau had sold the land to a developer.
The next year the Xian diocese started negotiating with the bureau to buy back the 1,800 square metre site, and reclaim the 238 square metre 'playground'. But the bureau took the diocese to court last October because the nuns - who wanted 50 years' compensation for the 'playground' - were confronting workers whenever they came to demolish the school.
Two days before the second hearing was scheduled, about 40 thugs hired by the developer came to the site and beat the nuns. As she rushed to help another nun under attack, Sister Cheng was punched in her right eye. All 17 nuns were injured, five of them, including Sister Cheng, seriously.
Shuffled between three Xian hospitals and later transferred to Beijing for an operation, she was diagnosed with a contusion of her cornea, a fractured inner orbital wall and a torn iris.
The attack, together with a November 27 street protest involving 500 clergy and Catholic worshippers in Xian, brought condemnation from the Vatican.
Without the attention, two other nuns said the land dispute would have continued to drag on. But days after the protest, it was resolved - the diocese agreed to pay 6.5 million yuan for the school site with the 'playground' thrown in for free, but without compensation.
Eleven people were later detained on criminal charges.
According to Anthony Lam Sui-ki, a religious affairs analyst in the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong, the total value of Catholic Church property in dispute on the mainland last year was estimated to be as much as 130 million yuan.
'Land disputes are not limited to the church, and cases of violations of church property rights are common on the mainland. What is unique in this Xian case is that [thugs] attacked harmless nuns,' Mr Lam said.
Xian diocese Coadjutor Bishop Dang Mingyan , 38, said the nuns would launch a joint civil lawsuit against the Lianhu Education Department and the developer for compensation.
The initial medical bills cost about 120,000 yuan - 90,000 yuan of which was covered by the developer and 30,000 yuan by the diocese. But there is more to come.
Sister Dong Jianian , 41, a native of Lintong county in Shaanxi, suffered a fractured spine. Despite a successful operation about 10 days after the attack, she has to wear a protective brace for six months.
She needs help to bathe, and cannot do chores or exercise. 'I can't jog or walk fast. When I walk I have to pay attention for fear others may bump into me,' she said.
In about six months, she will have another operation to remove steel implants from her spine.
With the help of her faith, Sister Dong remains light-hearted. 'We do not blame [the attackers] because they were just doing it for a living. I don't think they have thought about the suffering they brought. They were innocent, but the masterminds were guilty. I feel this is God's arrangement and so there's no hatred or regret.'
Sister Cheng is also forgiving. 'I don't hold any grudges against the attackers. They were doing their job,' she said.
On January 21, Sister Cheng and other nuns, including five beaten ones, took their permanent vows in a ceremony held by Bishop Dang. 'I never thought of changing [my mind]. With or without this incident, I was prepared to become a permanent nun,' she said.
Now recovering in the convent, Sister Cheng - who has been warned she could suffer an early onset of cataracts - is still haunted by the attack.
'When it gets dark and I'm out, I have a feeling that I should return earlier and not wait until it's completely dark,' she said.
'But I have to thank God because [the thugs] did not attack both my eyes. Luckily it was just one.'