TIANJIN, China, April 1, Reuters - "Come in and have a look." The welcoming sign on the gates of a ramshackle building with metal walls off a highway near this industrial city in northern China masks a grim reality: this is an underground Catholic church barely tolerated by Communist Party authorities.
Inside, a 30-year-old priest tells hundreds of Catholics, some sitting cross-legged on the floor because the pews are full, that he had just visited a parishioner, diagnosed with cancer years ago and told he was soon going to die. "But because of his faith, he is still alive and he told me how important believing was, how it kept him going," the priest says.
This underground Catholic church, which has no name, is a testament to the Roman Catholic Church's ability to survive as well - outside the control of the Communist Party. The priest, who declined to be identified, said his church has been operating since 1989 and now has a congregation of 1,500 to 2,000.
Authorities strictly monitor him and his church, which is 120 kms (75 miles) southeast of Beijing. State security agents and local police stop by every two weeks, asking him to detail his activities, the priest said. Once, police made him disperse a class he was teaching, telling him he was "not recognised" by the government.
But the surveillance has eased off recently, he said. "It has relaxed for about a year or so. Perhaps this is to do with the change in (China's) leadership."
He recalled the decade he spent at an underground seminary in Hebei province, where 10 seminarians used blankets to cover the windows so they could study in secret.
About 20 priests from the underground Catholic church work in and around Tianjin, the capital of Hebei province, which surrounds Beijing and is a stronghold of Catholicism in China, he said.
Authorities continue to exert pressure on the underground clergy: At least five priests, all of them from Hebei, remain in prison, said Or Yan Yan, project officer of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese. The Hebei government and the State Administration for Religious Affairs did not respond to requests for comment.
While local authorities have been more tolerant of his church outside Tianjin, said the priest, officials from the state-backed China Catholic Patriotic Association have been relentless in their opposition. Almost every day for the past two years, these officials have come by, trying to persuade him to join the association.
"They threatened to arrest me and that I would have to go to jail," the priest said. "I told them: 'I'm sorry, I can't do it. My faith tells me I can't do it'."
The Patriotic Association did not respond to a request for comment.
(Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee)