BEIJING -- In a poor village in northern China known as Wang La, four girls raised in a Catholic orphanage were seized by a secret society of peasants sweeping across China a century ago in an anti-foreign, anti-Christian revolt against Western colonial domination.
The Boxers, as the rebels were known because of the mystical exercises they practiced to prepare for battle, put the girls in a cart and ordered them to give up their faith. According to the Vatican's account of the event, each of the girls replied: "We are daughters of God. We will not betray Him."
So the girls -- Wang Cheng, Fan Kun, Ji Yu and Zheng Xu -- were killed. Today, Pope John Paul II will declare them martyrs for the faith and canonize them. The orphans, along with 83 other Chinese Roman Catholics killed between 1648 and 1930, will be the first Chinese raised to sainthood. Thirty-three foreign missionaries who died in China during those years also will be canonized.
Many Chinese Catholics have long awaited this moment. But the government has unleashed a vitriolic attack on the new saints. In statements published by the state-run press, government officials have stopped just short of saying they deserved to die, arguing that most were "henchmen of imperialist aggression" who committed "evil acts" and "monstrous crimes against the Chinese people."
CLASH OF IDEOLOGIES
In many ways, the verbal assault reflects the anxiety of the ruling Communist Party, as it struggles to cope with a nationwide boom in religion that is threatening its authority.
In part, according to Catholic leaders in Hong Kong and Taiwan, the government is worried that clergy loyal to the pope may have infiltrated the "patriotic" Catholic church it established after breaking ties with the Vatican in 1951 -- the only one allowed to practice the faith openly. At the same time, the government is worried about the growing numbers of Catholics here who refuse to join the patriotic church, and instead risk arrest by worshiping in illegal "house-churches" loyal to the Vatican.
All this comes as China continues to crack down on a range of unapproved cults, sects and underground religions, including the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement and evangelical Protestant groups, that are prospering as Communist ideology loses its appeal under rapid social change.
For the most part, Chinese officials have avoided specific charges against the saints. …