Tibet, The Catholic Church in
TIBET, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
Located in Central Asia, Tibet is situated on a difficult-to-access plateau averaging 16,000 ft. in height that is known as the "Roof of the World." An autonomous region of china since 1959, Tibet (Chinese Xizang) is bound on the north by Sinkiang Uighur and Tsinghai, on the east by Szechwan, on the southeast by Yunnan and Burma, on the south by Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim, and on the south and west by India. Northern Tibet borders the Kunlun Mountains, while in the south the Tsangpo plain is separated from its neighbors by the Himalayas. Several rivers flow through the region, and numerous lakes are located within Tibet's central plateau. Agricultural produce includes barley, millet, peas and rice, while natural resources include hydropower, chromate, lithium, copper and gypsum.
From the 13th century until 1959 Tibet was a theocracy, with the highest political authority in the hands of the Dalai Lama. Intermittently controlled by China for 12 centuries, Tibet became increasingly independent after the mid-19th century. After becoming communist, China renewed its efforts to occupy the region in 1950 and took full control of the officially renamed Tibet Region and Chamdo (Changtu) Area in 1959. In 1965 the region became an autonomous region within the People's Republic of China. About 85 percent of Tibet is uninhabitable. Its population is concentrated in the south and depends largely on a pastoral economy. Another 2¾ million Tibetans dwell in neighboring provinces of China.
Overwhelmingly Buddhist, by the early 20th century almost 20 percent of Tibetans were celibate lamas (monks) belonging to the dominant Gelug, or "Yellow Hat" sect dating from the 15th century. The Dalai Lama, revered as the reincarnation of Buddha, was forced to flee to India in 1959, whereupon the Chinese government appointed the Panch'en Lama in his stead.
History . Christianity never won more than a tiny following in Tibet. Syrian missionaries reached its northern territory in the 7th century, and influenced the lamaist ritual. They were followed by Jesuits from India who attempted to establish a mission in Tsaparang in western Tibet c. 1624–35. In 1661 two Jesuits traversed the country journeying from China to India, and Ippolito Desideri, SJ, worked in Lhasa from 1716–21. Between 1707 and 1745 Capuchins made three different attempts to organize a mission in Lhasa, but persecution drove them out and Tibet was closed to foreigners. Tibet was officially annexed to China as a province in 1720.
Although Tibet came under the authority of the vicariate apostolic of Hindustan in 1792, no more missionaries arrived until a brief 1844 visit to Lhasa by Lazarists Evariste huc and Joseph Gabet. Two years later the paris foreign mission society (MEP) was given charge of the Tibetan mission and the newly created Vicariate Apostolic of Lhasa. Its heroic attempts to penetrate this area resulted in the 1854 murder of two MEP priests, Nicholas Krick and Auguste Bourry, and succeeded only in opening a few precarious stations near the borders. Protestant missioners from the United States and the China Inland Mission labored from the end of the 19th century, but gained few converts. Renewed outbreak of hatred for foreigners at the turn of the 20th century sparked further persecution and resulted in the death of four missioners and many lay Catholics, as well as the almost complete destruction of the mission. By 1910 there were 21 European
priests and 2,407 Catholic Tibetans. Although the Canons Regular of the Grand St. Bernard sent a dozen priests between 1933 and their expulsion in 1952, Catholics in Tibet numbered less than 1,200 at the time the communist government came to power. Another 3,000 Tibetan Catholics lived in China.
Tibet under Communism . The Dalai Lama fled into exile in 1959, following one of several popular uprisings against Chinese rule. His authority was viewed as a threat to the communist government of Mao Zedong, and during the Cultural Revolution of 1966–76 China began patient yet methodical efforts to eradicate religion from Tibet. Freedom of worship was abolished and over 6,000 churches, temples and other places of worship were destroyed. The Chinese Catholic Patriotic Society, which had been established in 1957 in defiance of the Holy See, continued to ordain bishops in an effort to build a pseudofaith attractive to members of the Church. While Christian worship was once again permitted after 1980, social unrest continued; a 1987 revolt by Tibetans lasted for two years before it was suppressed through martial law. In May of 1995 the government attempted to undercut the power of the Dalai Lama by denying access to ten-yearold Gendhun Chokyi Nyima, who, as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama was the second most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism. On Dec. 6, 1995, the government installed Gyaltsen Norbu, son of a government official, as the Panchen Lama and demanded his recognition by Buddhist monks. Nyima and his family were never seen again, and rumors that the boy had perished in prison were circulating in late 1999.
Into the 21st Century . Throughout the 1990s the Chinese government continued to discourage both Tibetan nationalism and religion, and its efforts extended to minority populations, such as Catholics who refused to join the Catholic Patriotic Association. In 1997 a concerted effort to teach socialist rather than spiritual values was underway in Tibet, while monks were forced to undergo a "reeducation" program to make them of use to society. In 1995 two Tibetan monks were imprisoned for demonstrating in Llasa, prompting the government to prohibit other monks from entering the city and closing the Jokhang, a religious site. In addition to detentions, the use of torture against such political prisoners persisted, sometimes resulting in death. In May of 1996 the Dalai Lama met with Pope John Paul II and discussed the situation facing both faiths in communist China. Repeated efforts by the Dalai Lama to win Tibet a limited degree of autonomy were ignored by the Chinese government, as were efforts by the Vatican to ensure the safety of all Catholics still living in the country. According to official sources, communist-mandated family planning—one child per family— while imposed on Tibet, did not apply to peasants or herdsman, who accounted for 88 percent of the population. However, reports from China in 2000 claimed that among the human rights abuses ongoing in Tibet was the compulsive sterilization of rural women.
Bibliography: c. h. desgodins, Le Thibet d'après la correspondance des missionaires (2d ed. Paris 1885). a. launay, Histoire de la mission du Thibet, 2 v. (Lille 1903). c. wessels, Early Jesuit Travellers in Central Asia, 1603–1721 (The Hague 1924). e. d. maclagan, The Jesuits and the Great Mogul (London 1932). c. da terzorio, Le missioni dei Minori Cappuccini, 10 v. (Rome 1913–38) v.8. f. callaey, "Missionnaires capucins et civilisation thibétaine," Études franciscaines, 46 (1934) 129–139. p. croidys, Du Grand-Saint-Bernard au Thibet (Paris 1949). g. m. toscano, La prima missione cattolica nel Tibet (Parma 1951). I missionarii italiani nel Tibet e nel Nepal, ed. l. petech, 4 v. (Rome 1952–53). k. s. latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity, 7 v. (New York 1937–45) v.3, 6, 7. t. schmid and h. motel, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart 3, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 1957–65) 6: 883–884. c. a. bell, Tibet, Past and Present (Oxford 1924); The Religion of Tibet (Oxford 1931). a. m. cable et al., The Challenge of Central Asia (London 1929).
[e. r. hambye/eds.]