A Catholic church in Tibet

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Every daybreak on the southeast edge of the Tibetan Plateau, Lucy walks into the only Catholic Church in Tibet, dips her fingers into the holy water and makes the sign of the cross before praying.

The only Catholic church in Tibet.[File photo]

The only Catholic church in Tibet.[File photo]

Rain, hail or shine, the 62-year-old has attended masses and sermons since she was baptized as a child. The priest who baptized her gave her the Western name.

But Lucy is at home among Tibetans, who swing prayer wheels and prostrate themselves in front of Buddhas.

Unlike Catholics elsewhere, Lucy reads the Bible in Tibetan and presents hada, long pieces of silk used as greeting gifts among Tibetans, to the Virgin Mary.

The church she visits every day is perched on a hill in the valley west of the Jinsha River. It is in the village of Yanjing, also known as "Yerkalo", and is adorned with gesang flowers in its court, where white hada frame the religious artworks.

Built by French missionary Felix Biet in 1865, the whitewashed structure has two crosses on its outer walls while its interior is adorned with Gothic arches and frescos on the ceiling.

Father Felix was born in 1838 and ordained a priest in January 1864. He arrived in Tibet two months later. He was also ordained a bishop and died in 1901.

After the church was built, clashes between its followers and those of a nearby lamasery were common. The clashes reached a peak in the 1940s when armed lamas took over the church. The church was not returned to Catholic hand until 1951 after many local Catholics had asked the local authorities, the Qamdo People's Liberation Committee, to return it to them.

That handover marked the end of clashes between the local Catholics and Tibetan Buddhists, according to the China Tibet News website.

The church became an elementary and middle school during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). In the late 1980s, the church was renovated at a cost of 102,000 yuan (about 14,934 U.S.dollars), 95,000 yuan of which came from the government.

Tibetan priest Father Laurent says the Upper Yanjing Village has a population of less than 1,000, and that the church, with more than 500 parishioners, has enriched the local culture and coexists with Tibetan monasteries.

"Many villagers bring their babies to be baptized, and the baptism is performed over eight consecutive days. The babies will receive religious names like Paul and Anne. The names will be with them for their whole lives, and when they die, they will be buried," he says.

But wedding ceremonies do not take place in the church, Father Laurent says, the priest will instead go to the couple's home and pray for them.

Maria takes charge of cleaning and daily necessities. But her husband Zhaxi Wangdui is a fervent Tibetan Buddhist.

Maria says they are both pious and respect each other's beliefs - "We still share the same culture and lifestyle after all."

When the Tibetan New Year falls, normally in March, Maria joins her husband and the village folk to celebrate.

"After all these years of coexistence, couples who belong to different religions in the village can stick to their own faiths when they marry and their children can choose their own religion once they grow up."

At Christmas, Father Laurent says Catholics from neighboring provinces come while Buddhists from nearby lamaseries are invited over.

"Religious conflicts between the Catholics and Buddhists are a thing of the past," says Father Laurent.

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