Guardian: Vatican agreement with China could ‘deal blow’ to Catholic church

The Guardian
Harriet Sherwood Religion correspondent
Tue 13 Feb 2018 00.00 EST

Last modified on Tue 13 Feb 2018 17.01 EST

Open letter opposes recognition of Chinese government-appointed bishops by the Vatican

The Catholic church risks damaging its moral authority and plunging its followers into confusion if the Vatican presses ahead with an imminent deal with the Chinese government, a group of influential Catholics has warned.

Catholics in Hong Kong gather at the news that
Beijing and the Vatican, whose relations were
severed after the Communist state was founded
in 1949, have reached a deal.
Photograph: STAFF/Reuters

Fifteen lawyers, academics and human rights activists, most based in Hong Kong, have signed an open letter to bishops across the world expressing dismay at an agreement which would involve the Vatican recognising seven bishops appointed by China’s Communist party.

The deal is aimed at restoring relations between China and the Vatican, which were cut almost 70 years ago. But the group of leading Catholics say it could create a schism in the church in China.

“We are worried that the agreement would not only fail to guarantee the limited freedom desired by the church, but also … deal a blow to the church’s moral power,” the letter says. “Please rethink the current agreement, and stop making an irreversible and regrettable mistake.”

The letter comes less than two weeks after a senior Catholic leader in Asia accused the Vatican of selling out the church in its efforts to make a deal with the Chinese government.

Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former bishop of Hong Kong, wrote in a blog post: “Do I think the Vatican is selling out the Catholic church in China? Yes, definitely, if they go in the direction which is obvious from all what they are doing in recent years and months.”

Last month, the Vatican asked two “underground” bishops – who operate without Chinese government approval – to relinquish their positions in favour of government-appointed counterparts, one of whom was excommunicated by Rome in 2011.

One of them, Guo Xijin, said at the weekend he would “obey Rome’s decision” and respect any deal struck between the Beijing and Vatican authorities. Guo and the second bishop, Zhuang Jianjian, are under police surveillance and Guo has been repeatedly detained, including for 20 days last year.

The issue of bishop appointments is at the centre of efforts to restore Vatican-Chinese relations, which were officially severed after the foundation of the Communist state in 1949.

There are an estimated 10 to 12 million Catholics in China, with about half worshipping in underground churches, and half in government-managed churches.

The Chinese government has appointed seven bishops, who are not recognised by Rome. Up to 40 Rome-backed underground bishops operate without Chinese government approval.

Negotiations to restore ties between the two powers opened more than 18 months ago, but the issue of bishops has been a major stumbling block.

Last year the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, told the Communist party congress that religions in China “must be Chinese in orientation”, and the government must “provide active guidance to religions so that they can adapt themselves to socialist society”.

New regulations came into force on 1 February specifying the types of religious organisations that can exist, where they can exist and the activities they can organise.

There has been a crackdown on burgeoning evangelical Protestant churches, with many being forced to remove crosses and ordered to disband.

According to the Catholic leaders’ open letter, “the Communist party in China, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, has repeatedly destroyed crosses and churches, and the [state-controlled China Catholic Patriotic Association] maintains its heavy-handed control over the church.

“Religious persecution has never stopped. Xi has also made it clear that the party will strengthen its control over religions.”

It goes on: “We cannot see any possibility that the coming agreement can result in the Chinese government stopping its persecution of the church and ceasing its violations of religious freedom.”

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