Father Bernardo Cervellera is the founder and director of the news outlet Asia News, which celebrated its second anniversary earlier this month.
The news agency's audience figures have skyrocketed since its founding, and its stories are picked up by all kinds of interest groups and media outlets. It is most renowned for its focus on China, Israel and Saudi Arabia. The agency belongs to the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME). Father Cervellera spoke with the Register's Edward Pentin.
Where are you from originally?
Puglia, the south of Italy, but when I was 11 my family moved to Milan — near Milan — then I moved to Hong Kong.
Did you live in China for a while?
Yes. I was first in Taiwan where I studied Mandarin, then in Hong Kong for 5 years, studying and working as journalist for the Asia News bulletin. Then I did some traveling which was wonderful as every month I could travel to some country in Asia, and above all in China, so I learn much more about different parts of this big country and this Church. Then I was invited to Beijing to work there, first as teacher of Italian and English, and then as professor of the history of Western civilization at Beijing University.
Apart from the agency's obvious focus on news from Asia, what would you say is Asia News’ real
It has a missionary purpose, first of all because Asia, as the late Pope [John Paul II] said, is our common aim for the third millennium. He repeated this many times — in Manila in 1995 and in many documents. And this is also one aim of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions — my institute which has, as one of its principal aims, evangelization among non-Christians. Now Asia is the continent where most of the non-Christians live — around 85%. Our tradition as a missionary institute is that in Asia we have most of our missions, from India to Japan. That's why we agreed that I complete a master's in journalism, and then three years ago we started this website, which is a faster and more effective way to give information. The communication is linked to evangelization.
Before that, Asia News was simply a pre-Internet news agency?
Yes, it was a fortnightly bulletin, written on paper.
Whose idea was it to start the website?
Mine. I had experience at Fides, the Vatican news agency, and because I came from Hong Kong in 1997 where I'd spent time as a missionary. It was quite normal there to have a website at that time. Fides started its own website just a few months after the Vatican website.
You've seen quite a phenomenal growth in audience figures for Asia News.
Yes, the website has become one of the main sources among media productions, also university students, managers and businessmen who are interested in Asia for different reasons — businessmen who are wanting to invest money and work in Asia, and media people who want to have information about Asia. Students are interested in service because they want to study from a cultural point of view religion, freedom of religion — embassies and politicians, too. So these are the main readers. We started with 150,000 hits, and now we have more that 3 or 4 million per month.
Was that rapid growth a surprise to you?
It was a surprise because our content goes against the current. Our news is about people in Asia, religion and freedom of religion, political topics and economical topics. But they are all from the human point of view, the justice point of view, and from the point of view of freedom. It is not the sort of common news you can find in other agencies, in “fashionable” news — we run against the prevailing worldview. But perhaps also because people trust us. They have started to trust us because we have local correspondents; we have missionaries there, so we have people who look at the situation without any ideological, political or economic interest. They are just interested in truth.
What distinguishes Asia News from, say, the Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN), a Thailand-based Church news agency also on the Web?
UCAN has very good news and information about the Church but not too much about society. Our aim is to have a wider perspective, to stress this understanding of the Asian situation from a Christian point of view, looking at culture, politics, the environment, health and so on. UCAN is more restricted to only Church topics. … We missionaries believe that a Christian doesn't have ideological attachments, interests and so on, but instead has a deeper and wider understanding of the situation. So in a way this information we give is about society, but also a deeper Christian understanding — an original perspective.
Is the Vatican connected with Asia News in any way?
Not officially. We have a very good relationship with some personalities in the Vatican. Of course the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions has allegiance to the Vatican. Sometimes we cooperate with some offices of the Secretary of State.
A large part of your outreach is to China, isn't it?
Some of it — one third of our site is devoted to China; it's in the Chinese language.
Is that your main goal — to target China in that way?
Our main goal, first of all, is to inform Christians in China about the situation there. It's a very important fact because even people in China do not know what is going on there, what is going on regarding human rights, freedom of religion and the freedom of the Church. It's also about the feeling of the Church. Asia News, and Fides, when I was there, have become important instruments. I have received an important letter from the ‘official’ Catholic church in [Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association], saying that your website has become very important because it is a trustworthy source of information, and this, he wrote, makes official and unofficial Catholics have a better understanding of the Church — we can have a common vision of the situation. So it helps reconcile these two branches of the church and this is happening through Asia News. Also there is interest from other quarters; for example, the Falun Gong people like our site very much, and dissidents, labor union representatives — they cooperate with us.
Yes, they are interested in freedom for the people of Tibet — they read a lot. This helps different people to have the same perspective, to be able to make judgments on events in China. At the same time, because we produce things in Italian and English, we help the rest of the world become interested in the situation in China. So sometimes we have campaigned to free bishops and priests, for human rights in China or for an arms embargo and so on. And we have, thank God, been successful sometimes. The European Parliament has accepted a request; the bishops’ conference in the United States has done the same, also bishops in Italy and Korea. It's a way of putting pressure on China from a political point of view.
What would you like for the future of Asia News; what is your vision for the agency?
One aim of Asia News is not only to inform but also to warm the hearts and wills of the people so they can be missionaries in Asia. We moved many people to help after the tsunami, the earthquake in Kashmir, and now we're moving them to be missionaries towards Vietnam and China. For this we need people who can listen carefully and be a co-operator of Asia News and a supporter.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.