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Easter in China: Rebirth in a Tibetan Catholic village

Tibetan Catholics in the village of Cizhong in Yunnan province come together to observe the rites of Easter. Photo: Haiya Zhang

The Western image of Tibet is largely one of a vast plateau cradled between snow-capped mountains where peaceful Buddhists devote their lives to prayer and meditation.

Yet this vision of the region does not do justice to the rich, diverse cultures of those who live there. As the Christian world celebrated Easter, a sizeable Tibetan community in China's far-flung west is also celebrating the resurrection of Christ.

Nestorian Christianity arrived in the Tibetan region more than a thousand years ago. The love-hate relations of its faithful with Buddhism and the central government in Beijing reflect the complexity of lives that gives its people in this area a unique identity.

Christianity spread to Tibet and Yunnan province via the trade routes linking Europe and East Asia a millennium ago. As early as the 16th century, the Vatican sent missionaries to evangelise to the local community. By the 19th century, Pope Gregory XVI had created the Vicariate Apostolic of Lhasa and assigned French missionaries the task of converting the Tibetan people.

But for all the myths about peaceful Tibetan Buddhists, the introduction of Catholicism to the region proved violent. Tibetan Buddhist monasteries regularly waged wars against the Catholic followers, killing priests and converts and razing churches and villages.

Worried the clashes would destabilise their rule in the region, the Qing dynasty central government resettled Tibetan Catholics from central Tibet to the neighbouring provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan where many Tibetans live.

Today the legacy of this missionary zeal is still apparent in the village of Cizhong in the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in northwest Yunnan.

At the centre of this hamlet rural town is a Gothic-style church with Chinese characteristics, first built in 1905 and rebuilt with government funds in 1914 after the previous incarnation was burned down by local Buddhists.

The Cizhong Catholic church is one of Yunnan's most important churches and has been listed as a national historic and cultural site since 2006. Out of their liturgical needs for wine during mass, missionaries brought grapes and taught local villagers to produce wine in the French tradition, making it the only place in the country with an indigenous wine culture.

The local population is a mix of ethnic Lisu, Yi, Naxi, Han and Tibetan people. While they are all heavily influenced by Tibetan culture and Tibetan is their main language, 80 percent of the people are Catholic.

Houses are decorated with icons and religious images of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and even Pope Francis. Around many of the larger icons are khatas, ceremonial scarves used in Tibetan culture and Tibetan Buddhism. While the central government is suspicious of Catholicism and Tibetan Buddhism in general, here the authorities are generous in sponsoring the local church.

Hong Xing, a Catholic villager and hotel owner, has decorated his home with icons, pictures of President Xi Jinping and first lady Peng Liyuan , as well as former Chinese communist leaders.

He does not see the mix of Tibetan, Catholic and communist symbols as conflicting with his religion.

Throughout the town, communist flags are seen on the top of many houses yet not a single national flag is visible.

This melting-pot culture has made the town a tourist destination. The government has poured money into the region, even building a new bridge over the Lancang (Mekong) River to connect Cizhong with the main road to Deqin. In 2008, the official Catholic Church in Beijing sent ethnic Mongolian Yao Fei to be Cizhong's priest.

"The government has provided a great deal of aid to the region. Even the church renovations were the result of government aid," Yao said.

Before Yao arrived, church services were conducted entirely in Tibetan. Today, the services are conducted in Putonghua with the hymns in Tibetan. Gradually, Putonghua and Han Chinese culture have taken over.

The language and Chinese customs are widely adopted.

The central government maintains a tight grip on the region. The road to Cizhong has four police and military checkpoints, where visitors are stopped for identification checks.

Today the relationship between Tibetan Catholics and Tibetan Buddhists is generally cordial. The two communities celebrate traditional festivals together and interfaith marriages are no longer rare.

The atmosphere in the church was full of joy and community this year as people gathered to re-enact Christ's final days and to celebrate the resurrection.

Villagers, tourists and guests from neighbouring areas packed the church courtyard as children ran around playing.

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