Despite reflecting about God on philosophical and theological grounds, it is also noteworthy to look at the religion landscape on the ground. Today, we will take a look at Catholicism.
In the Yerkalo village in Qamdo City, one can find the only Catholic Church in the Tibet Autonomous Region, serving at around 600 believers. According to the Tibetan villager Lurenti on China Central Television, the church was established in 1865; however the Christian Times from China gives 1855 as foundation year. The short documentary that on China Central Television states 78 % of villagers of Upper Saltwell village (the translation of the village’s name) are Catholics. Like with many Christian churches in the Tibetan area, it was founded by French missionaries. Poupard (2022) identifies Auguste Desgodins (1826-1913) as the church’s founder. In Chinese, the town is called Yanjing and it is dedicated to the Naxi nationality, so the village itself is multiethnic, and I guess that many visitors to the church are actually Tibetan-speaking Naxi. According to TibetOL, since 1996, the priest is an ethnic Tibetan.
It is interesting to see that the locals are giving the Hada as a traditional sign of well-wishing and bliss after baptization, and it is no surprise that the convert seen in the video is at least 18 years old, since minors are not allowed to join churches in the People’s Republic of China, due to the government fears that religious organizations could indoctrinate children and separate the society. We can see therefore the syncretization of Tibetan traditionalism and Christianity, such as can also be seen in other areas of the world, such as Catholicism in Indonesia’s Java region. The Christian rosary and Buddhist beads also fall together in this very church, being a sign of syncretization. So on the one hand, the people uphold the traditional values and their symbols, on the other hand, they fully embraced Christianity. Additionally, the followers were traditional Tibetan clothes, and according to China Central television, they pray mixed in Chinese and Tibetan. One reason, as we can learn from Lurent is, that there is still no complete translation of the Bible in Tibetan, so they also have to use Chinese Bibles. Nonetheless, explanations are usually given in Tibetan. Lurenti also explains that intermarriage between Catholics and Buddhists is common in his village. So we can see this an example of peaceful coexistence, and it should be a model for harmony. Anyways, Lurenti also admits that as Tibetans, they also venerate God in a Tibetan way – and this is a very important fact in my point of view: We ought not to enforce our images, our views, our rites on God on other peoples; they might have their own way, own gate into understanding God. Nonetheless, this harmony is a quite new one. In fact, there were disputes between Catholics and Buddhists in Tibet in the near past. After Maurice Tornay became priest of the Yerkalo parish in southeast Tibet in 1945 or 1946, he was soon driven away by local lamas who looted his residence. On 11 August 1949, Tornay’s caravan was ambushed and he was killed. As the Christian Times in China pointed out: “Tibet is the hard soil for the Gospel. But God is always at work here.”
The very first church in Yerkalo was European-influenced in its style. According to TibetOL, the church was demolished in 1969 and the site was used for the Yanjing Primary School and Middle School. In 1986, the church was rebuilt on the original wall foundation. The rebuilt church was destroyed by an earthquake in the late 1990s. The new church then was built in a Tibetan style with a classical European-styled Catholic interior. The China Tibet Network writes: “According to the priest, the church was restored in 2000. It has a wooden vaulted interior, and painters brought in from inside the country painted murals based on the New Testament and the Old Testament. In contrast to this is a small two-story courtyard house, which was also built after the ‘Cultural Revolution’, kneeling full of devout Tibetan believers.”
Of course, we can also find a few Catholics scattered in Tibet which do not have a church building. There exists, for instance, a small number of Catholic Tibetans in Lhasa who are practicing their faith, such as the couple Hua and Lu Sheng who moved to Lhasa from Markam County, in which Yerkalo is situated, in 2015 to continue “the tradition of growing grapes, once founded by Catholic missionaries” [Wirtzfeld, 2022].
Poupard, Duncan: Translation/re-Creation: Southwest Chinese Naxi Manuscripts in the West. Abingdon/ New York: Routledge, 2022.
Christian Times: 西藏唯一的天主教堂——盐井天主教堂（图集）. 2014年07月28日. https://www.christiantimes.cn/gallery/61/西藏唯一的天主教堂——盐井天主教堂（图集）, retrieved on 9 January 2023.
TibetOL: 盐井天主教堂. 西藏在线. http://www.tibetol.cn/html/2013/qt_0618/1144.html, retrieved on 9 January 2023.
Tibet Short Documentaries: A Catholic Church with a Tibetan priest. China Central Television, no date.
Wirtzfeld, Arthur: Wine growing on the roof of the world. Wine Life Magazine, 17 January 2022. https://winelifemagazin.com/en/wine-growing-on-the-roof-of-the-world/, retrieved on 9 January 2023.
索朗卓玛: 盐井的天主教堂和盐田. 中国西藏网，2018年1月31日. http://m.tibet.cn/cn/religion/201801/t20180131_5421026.html, retrieved on 9 January 2023.
Timo Schmitz, 10 January 2023