AS nightfall unveils a star-strewn sky over the wintry North China plain, the underground Roman Catholic village of Youtong lies in a hush.
A farmhouse door opens, revealing the glowing warmth inside as a peasant couple and child bundled in cotton-padded clothes step briskly into the darkness. Silently, they follow the beam of a flashlight down dirt footpaths to a large, open-air courtyard. In minutes, hundreds of villagers of all ages are kneeling before a makeshift altar under a tree. They clasp hands, close their eyes and begin chanting Mass by heart.
"We must love our enemies, although it is very difficult," a young priest exhorts the believers as candles flicker on the altar. "We must love them despite an endless number of wrongs...."
Suddenly, loudspeakers throughout the village crackle and the barking voice of a Communist Party official drowns out the priest. The Army is recruiting soldiers in Youtong, and the official calls on youths to enlist.
The Communist regime often intrudes more brutally into the lives of Youtong's people. More than half of the 3,700 villagers are "underground" Catholics who remain loyal to the Vatican and refuse to join China's state-run "patriotic" Catholic church. Easter edifice destroyed
On April 18, 1989, about 5,000 police entered Youtong to destroy a temporary edifice villagers had erected to celebrate Easter. Police beat their way through a human chain formed around the "church," injuring more than 300 people. One middle-aged woman died of her wounds, villagers say.
The police detained 32 villagers, again beating some to try to force them to blame the incident on the underground clergy. Authorities later arrested a priest, Father Pei Ronggui, who is serving a five-year term at the No. 4 Prison in Shijiazhuang City, 15 miles from Youtong..
Today, police from a special "religion section" of the county public-security department often harass Youtong's Catholics. They obstruct worship by confiscating everything from crucifixes to chalices. On Catholic holidays, they put village priests under house arrest.
"Controls on us are greater and greater. The government wants to extinguish us because we refuse to obey," says a resident of Youtong, located in Hebei Province, an underground Catholic stronghold. "We only want our freedom to believe."
Life here illustrates how China's hard-line leaders are intensifying repression of unofficial religions in a drive to reassert Communist Party control over society.
In January, Party chief Jiang Zemin called for "strengthening ... religious work" in order to "stop undesirable elements from using religion ... to create chaos" and "resist infiltration by outside hostile forces." Days later, the party reportedly issued a secret, top-level directive, Document No. 6, ordering police to wage a nationwide crackdown on religious groups operating outside state control. And when China's police chiefs met in Beijing in November, Public Security Minister Tao Siju again targeted
"criminals" who "use religion to carry out destructive activities."
China's underground Christians number only 10 million to 40 million - less than 4 percent of the population. But Beijing apparently fears the close-knit communities are a potent source of liberal activism because of their links to Western churches, humanistic faith, and tempering by decades of political persecution.
Chinese officials have publicly accused underground Catholics of inciting pro-democracy protests in 1989, creating "chaos" among the peasantry, and undermining rural party branches. In an internal speech last spring, Vice President Wang Zhen reportedly complained that in one Hebei county last year only 270 people joined the party but 813 became Catholics.
In the current crackdown, Chinese authorities have detained hundreds of Christian clergy and believers and shut down at least 300 Protestant "house churches" in Christian communities in central and eastern China, according to the Puebla Institute, a Washington-based lay Catholic human rights group. And at least 141 Catholic leaders have been arrested since November 1989, when several leading clergymen organized an unofficial bishops' conference, says the New York-based rights group Asia Watch. Religious tradition
The struggle for religious freedom is not new in Youtong, a cluster of walled, earthen-brick farmhouses surrounded by fields of winter wheat.
Village clans have passed down Catholicism for generations, since Western missionaries introduced the faith in Hebei in the 19th century. But after the 1949 revolution, local priests were jailed for refusing to split with the Vatican and embrace the official church set up in 1957. In the 1960s and '70s, Red Guards destroyed a village church and forbid faith in anything but Mao Zedong's "little red book."
"At that time, you couldn't make any noise if you wanted to pray. If they [Red Guards] looked in the window and saw you, they would drag you out and beat you," says one villager.
Villagers began to worship more openly when China relaxed Mao's ban on religion in the early 1980s. Yet while the state-sanctioned Catholic body revived religious celebrations, reopened seminaries, and rebuilt churches, underground Catholics faced continued repression.
China's laws grant the freedom of "religious belief," but limit "religious activities" to the confines of the state-run church. Catholics loyal to Rome are considered "anti-socialist" and must be indoctrinated in "the truth," according to the official 1991 book "Religion in China."
"As time goes on, those followers who did not see the truth will gradually come to see things," the book says.
Since state directives on religion are sent only to the official church, Youtong's Catholics did not learn about a document on returning church property to believers until 1989, nine years after it was issued.
The villagers appealed to authorities to return their church land, which is partly occupied by a school and factory. But the government refused, saying only the official church could reclaim the property.
In May 1989, a month after police violently imposed the state's will in Youtong, Hebei leaders issued a new, sweeping prohibition on religion known as Document No. 26, according to a Catholic publication in Hong Kong. "No religious activity may interfere with the order of work, production, education, society, life, and military activity," the document states. 'What we lack is freedom'
In the courtyard of a Youtong farmhouse, the coals of an outdoor stove are settling. Golden ears of newly harvested corn pile high on the tiled roof. Inside, a child sleeps on the thick quilts of the family bed. The wall is adorned with images of Jesus.
"We have enough to eat. What we lack is freedom. That's what really makes our hearts uneasy," reflects one peasant after a simple meal of steamed bread and boiled millet porridge.
"When we close the door of this room, here inside, we are free," he says, motioning to the small enclosure. "But once we go outside, it's gone."