A Catholic church, known as the "Notre Dame Cathedral of the Orient," will be restored to its original magnificence in Harbin, the capital of Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province.
The renovation work has begun, and local Catholic should be able to attend mass at the church from October, for the first time in 52 years, said Wang Chunqing, deputy head of Hulan County in Harbin, yesterday.
The church was built in 1908 by a French clergyman. Covering an area of 560 square metres, it includes the main church building, built in Gothic style, and two church-related buildings, built in Baroque style. The 30-metre high Gothic building bears a striking resemblance to the well-known Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
Bao Guangjin, a priest with the Harbin Patriotic Catholic Association, said the Hulan Catholic Church was unique in its resemblance to the Paris original. Fourteen French and four Chinese priests used to live in the church, said Bao.
In 1951, the local Catholic church organization ceded ownership of the oriental "Notre Dame" to the Hulan government, and religious activities came to an end.
Local governments in China began returning churches to local religious groups in 1980, in line with the policy of the central government.
In May, the local government of Hulan signed a contract with the Harbin Patriotic Catholic Association ceding the property and use rights to the church to the association free of charge.
"The handover implements the central government's policy on religious affairs and also reflects China's protection of people's religious freedom," said Wang.
The embossment around the arched gateway of the church still tells religious stories after nearly a hundred years. The two belfries stand upright among green trees, and images portraying biblical stories on the arched doorway and windows are faintly visible.
The Harbin Patriotic Catholic Association, in charge of the restoration work, has raised 1.2 million yuan (US$145,000) for the repairs.
The local government of Hulan is also helping the local Catholic group with the refurbishment, said Wang.
The local church group has been exempted from 17 taxable items related to the delivery and repair work totalling over 100,000 yuan (US$12,000). The middle school beside the church has also been moved to give the church more space.
As a measure of goodwill, the government has decided to invest 2.7 million yuan (US$326,000) to build a 20,000-square metre square complete with fountains, grass and flowers, around the church to enhance its beauty.
(Xinhua News Agency July 10, 2003)