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A Faith Near to Heaven

A century and a half ago, French priests brought Catholicism to the Tibetan plateau. There it has endured, despite war, Maoism and rival religions.


CIZHONG, China — They arrive on foot each Sunday, some walking as long as an hour. They come through the doorway in silence, then kneel, heads bowed, hands folded.

Their prayers to Jesus echo off the cold stone walls; pictures of the Blessed Virgin gaze down from the church's pillars; the altar shimmers in the candlelight.

It's a tableau of piety and reverence familiar around the world. But the thin, high-altitude sunlight that filters through the windows also reveals the unexpected.

There are ceiling tiles painted with the yin-and-yang symbol of Taoism--a nod to the influence of indigenous art and culture. Other tiles depict the lotus blossom found in Buddhist iconography. The worshipers themselves are clad in colorful dress, the women's heads wrapped in magenta scarves that serve as bright reminders of who they are.

They are Tibetans. And unlike the vast majority of their people--Buddhist practically by definition, followers of the Dalai Lama--most Tibetans of this village in China's Yunnan province are Roman Catholic. In their elegant church, built by European missionaries a century ago, they cling to their faith as tenaciously as their homes cling to the hillsides above the swirling Mekong River, high up on the Tibetan plateau.

How this and a few neighboring communities blossomed into unlikely Christian outposts on the roof of the world is a fascinating tale of East meeting West and of the enduring power of faith.

As the Catholic Church worldwide searches its soul over allegations of sexual abuse, the 600 or so believers here continue to go about their spiritual life untouched by faraway controversies.

Yet they too must struggle to survive, nestled here on majestic but forbidding mountains that feed into the Himalayas. There is no resident priest to guide them. Their young have decamped to the cities. Local officials discriminate against them.

But their faith endures. Through decades of war, privation, internecine strife and official persecution, the Catholics in this area have held on to their religion with as much fervor as the Buddhists whose plight has captured the imagination of so many in the West.

"We believe that neither man nor the government can vanquish faith," declared Father Tao Zhibin, the young cleric who oversees the flock scattered throughout the region. "Faith is in your heart."


Cizhong, a village of about 1,000 people, lies in the upper corner of Yunnan province, just over the border from Tibet proper. On the edge of the massive Tibetan plateau, northwest Yunnan is home to about 123,000 ethnic Tibetans.

Only one road leads to Cizhong from the nearest town, three hours away--a narrow, heart-stopping passage bounded by a rock face on one side and a sheer drop of hundreds of feet on the other. Rain frequently washes out the road, piling up boulders that have to be blasted through with dynamite.

Cizhong's inaccessibility makes it difficult for Tao, who comes from the distant town of Dali in Yunnan, to visit and celebrate Mass more than two or three times a year. Christmas, marked by dancing around a bonfire, gets pushed forward or back from Dec. 25 to accommodate Tao's schedule.

"Our priest is very precious to us," said Luo Shengcai, 35. "He has to travel hither and yon, so we don't get to see him very often."

Even the postman comes calling in Cizhong just twice a month.

Yet every week, scores of committed believers gather in the village's beautiful old church for intimate Sunday services. Men and women sit on separate sides of the aisle on wooden slats. Sometimes in unison, sometimes alternating between male and female voices, the worshipers sing their hymns, Christian lyrics set to traditional melodies of the Tibetan highlands.

One family's worn little orange hymnal provides a clue to the origins of this isolated Catholic community. Printed on its frontispiece, in an old-fashioned typeface, is the title, "Chants Religieux Thibetains," and the year and place the book was published: 1894, in Rennes, France.

It was nearly 150 years ago that priests from the Foreign Missions of Paris made their way onto the Tibetan upland, eager to spread their gospel to what they considered a benighted land.

At the time, Tibet was a feudal kingdom where Buddhist lamas reigned--not always peaceably--and serfs worked the land, their lives brutish and short. The Buddhist monasteries were intolerant of outside religions; foreigners were constantly attacked by brigands. Arson destroyed the missions built in Cizhong and nearby Deqin; two priests were murdered in 1905.

Hostility persisted for decades, even after the clerics withdrew to the border regions between Tibet and China's Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. In the 1930s, weary of the conflict and bloodshed, the French fathers turned the area over to the Swiss Mission of St. Bernard, by order of the pope.

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