Vatican rebuts US protests over China deal

Pact allows Catholic bishops in China to be approved by both the Chinese communist party and the Vatican.

Vatican rebuts US protests over China deal

ROME — The Vatican has renewed a controversial agreement with China despite intense opposition from the U.S. government. 

In a climate of rising tensions between the U.S. and China, the Trump administration had pressed the Holy See not to renew the two-year bilateral pact over the running of the Catholic Church in China, citing the communist state’s persecution of minorities. 

But the Vatican refused to cave to U.S. pressure, announcing the extension on Thursday saying “it intends to continue the open and constructive dialogue to promote the life of the Catholic Church and the good of the Chinese people.”

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in a news briefing that the deal came “after friendly consultation,” adding, “The two sides will continue to push forward the process of improving relations.”

The move is likely to further strain Vatican-U.S. relations. Pope Francis has clashed with the Trump administration, particularly on immigration, and even suggested that President Donald Trump is not a Christian. 

He refused to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when he was in Rome last month, to avoid endorsing the administration so close to national elections. But last week the pontiff released an encyclical, or papal teaching, that seemed to criticize the administration’s policies, such as building a wall and separating migrant children.  

China’s roughly 12 million Catholics are split between an official government-run church, and an underground church loyal to the Vatican. The details of the deal are secret but it allows Catholic bishops in China to be approved by both the Chinese Communist Party and the Vatican, effectively bringing 12 million of China’s Catholics under government control. 

Supporters argue that the deal represents a step forward as it unites Catholics in China under the authority of the pope. But critics argue that the deal would only embolden the Chinese leadership in their persecution of religious minorities, and provide moral legitimacy to a repressive regime.

Underground church

China has cracked down on religious freedoms under the leadership of Xi Jinping. An estimated 1 million Uighur Muslims have been imprisoned for “reeducation,” Christians have been spied on and churches have been destroyed, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2019 annual report. Priests in the underground church have been placed under house arrest, beaten and “disappeared.”

In the run-up to the renewal, Pompeo voiced strong opposition at a conference on religious freedom in Rome, saying that the Vatican risked appearing indifferent to human rights. “Nowhere is religious freedom under assault more than it is inside of China today,” he said. The “increasingly repressive” Communist Party “works day and night to snuff out the lamp of freedom, especially religious freedom, on a horrifying scale.” The State Department declined to comment on the news that the deal had been renewed. 

In recent days, Pope Francis also refused to meet another outspoken critic of the deal with China, retired archbishop of Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen.

Zen said the Vatican clearly viewed the deal as a first step towards restoring diplomatic relations with China, which have been suspended since the 1950s.

He said that he feared the deal could have implications for Hong Kong, where freedoms are increasingly curtailed, by leading to the appointment of a pro-Beijing bishop there. 

Activist and founder of Hong Kong Watch Benedict Rogers told POLITICO the deal was “a big disappointment.”

“At a time when the free world, to varying degrees, is starting to speak out about China, the Vatican going in other direction gives a green light for more repression of religious freedom.” 

The deal “has come at the cost of the pope’s silence on Hong Kong and the Uighurs,” he said. “If that continues it will undermine his moral authority.” The Vatican did not respond to a request for comment. 

The Vatican has attempted to clear up “misunderstandings,” caused by wrongly attributing “objectives that did not exist” to the deal, its architect, Cardinal Pietro Parolin said. On the eve of the announcement he told journalists “We are aware of many problems of the life of the Catholic church in China, but also the impossibility of resolving them all at the same time.” 

In its official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican gave an explanation for the deal, saying “sectors of international politics” were incorrectly analyzing the deal, which deals only with clerical issues, “in a geopolitical light.”

The negotiations were the “the fruit of long negotiations started by [Francis’] predecessors, in an undoubted continuity of thought … but also a starting point for wider and long term understandings.” Dialogue between the Holy See and China could eventually “benefit the whole international community,” it said.  

One of the seven bishops to be recognized by the pope, Vincent Zhan Silu, told Chinese state-run media that the deal “sends a strong signal that [the government] wants to see the healthy development of the church in china.” Members of the underground church who had previously not registered with the government should now feel “encouraged,” he said. 

Source : Politico EU More