From Beijing's old official churches to underground congregations in the countryside, China's Catholics were marking the burial of Pope John Paul II yesterday despite an official blackout on the ceremony.
Print media paid no attention to the funeral, and state television said it would also ignore the event, leaving it to individual believers to commemorate the pontiff.
"I suspect that people will be praying for the pope during our regular mass," said a member of an underground church in Baoding city, a hotspot of unofficial Catholicism in northern Hebei Province. "We're in a sad mood, we think he was a great person."
Since the death of the pope, the Baoding area has been tense, with officials apparently worried that mourning over the pontiff's passing could prompt social unrest.
China has not recognized the Vatican in more than 50 years and has refused to send a representative to the funeral, angered that President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) would be attending.
For most underground Catholic groups, the day would pass in quiet prayer, with no major events organized, according to the US-based Cardinal Kung Foundation, which supports China's underground Catholic movement.
At Beijing's South Cathedral, a center of the country's state-sanctioned church, large numbers of local Catholics gathered for morning mass.
Although the service was not specifically dedicated to the memory of the pope, many who attended the ceremony appeared to use it as a private requiem mass for the late pontiff.
The worshippers, many of them frail and elderly, clutched rosary beads in quiet prayer, some with tears streaming down their faces.
Outside the old church building, plainclothes police lingered as a constant reminder that religion is kept under tight surveillance in the world's most populous country.
Places of worship in other parts of China reported plans to commemorate the pope in low-key ways, from the Xikai Church in the northern port city of Tianjin to the Xujiahui church in Shanghai.
"There will be a requiem mass for the pope early Saturday," said an official with the Xujiahui Church. "There will probably be several thousand people attending."
An apparent news blackout of the pope's funeral seemed to have been ordered for Chinese media yesterday.
The blackout extended to the foreign ministry's Web site, where a transcript of Thursday's regular briefing for local and foreign journalists had had questions and answers about the funeral removed.
The All-China Journalists Association said the absence of news of the event in the media was not the result of official censorship but of careful consideration of the kind of news that would sell in the marketplace.
"The media themselves choose what to report based on their needs," said a director at the association's international department surnamed Yao. "There are fewer Catholics in China than in foreign countries, so the potential audience is limited."
State-run China Central Television said there were no plans to broadcast the funeral, and that the prime-time TV news would not even mention the event with one word.
Joseph Kung, president of the Cardinal Kung Foundation, said he was shocked by the decision not to broadcast the service.
"I don't think the religious believers would use the opportunity of the funeral of the pope to stage an uprising. All the religious believers in the country love China," he said.
The Chinese government broke diplomatic ties with the Vatican in 1951. The Holy See recognizes Taiwan.
Catholics have since only been allowed to worship in the state-sanctioned church and Beijing insists on having a say in appointing bishops -- a condition that is unacceptable to the Vatican.
Sino-Vatican relations have been further strained since the pope canonized 120 martyrs in China on October 1, 2000.
Besides the official government-approved Catholic church, China also has an underground church, which is loyal to the Vatican and is believed to have millions of followers.
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