A Chinese government-backed paper said there are no 'disputes on issues of principle' between the two sides

A newspaper tied to the Chinese Communist Party reported Tuesday that a delegation of Vatican officials will head to China “in late September” for a final round of talks before an agreement on the appointment of bishops is signed.

Citing unnamed “sources familiar with the matter,” the Global Times, an English-language newspaper that reflects the position of Chinese authorities, said that “there are no ‘disputes on issues of principle’ between the two sides, and since the meeting between the two sides was previously held at the Vatican, the Vatican delegation will come to China this time for a meeting in late September, and if the meeting goes well, the agreement would be signed.”

“A Vatican source also confirmed with the Global Times last week that a prominent figure from the Holy See would probably come to China in late September,” the newspaper reported.

The Global Times also quoted Wang Meixiu, who is presented as “an expert on Catholic Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences,” saying that “China and the Vatican most likely agreed that the future bishops in China should be approved by the Chinese government and mandated by the Pope and the letter of appointment would be issued by the Pope.”

“Before signing the agreement,” according to the Communist party-run Chinese newspaper, “the Holy See would deliver an official document to acknowledge seven Chinese bishops who are regarded as ‘illegitimate’ by the Vatican, including some it previously had excommunicated.”

“The Chinese will receive a Vatican delegation by the ‘end of September’ to take one final step towards an agreement between the People’s Republic of China and the Holy See, according to a source close to the Chinese Communist Party,” the newspaper added.

Wang is quoted as saying that “one should not expect to solve complicated problems the Catholic Church in China faces today with one agreement,” and that the two sides “still need further discussions on the complex situation in the different dioceses in the Episcopal selection.”

According to the Global Times, Chinese government sources have “stressed that the ongoing negotiations will stay on the religious level, and will not touch on any diplomatic issue such as the establishment of diplomatic ties between Beijing and the Vatican.”

The Vatican is one of the last 17 states in the world that recognizes the government of Taiwan, an island led by a democratically-elected government since 1949. Beijing considers Taiwan to be a renegade Chinese province.

In previous negotiations, China has insisted that the Vatican cut its ties with Taiwan and promise not to interfere with internal Chinese affairs in order to come to an agreement.

It is estimated that there are about 12 million Catholics currently living in China, half within official state churches in the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the rest in the “underground Church.”

The Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association is under the day-to-day direct supervision of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) due to a major change in March 2018 in which the Chinese government shifted direct control of religious affairs to the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department (UFWD).

Some of the bishops appointed by the Chinese government in the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association also serve as members of the Chinese Communist Party’s National People’s Congress.

“We, as citizens of the country, should first be a citizen and then have religion and beliefs,” Bishop Peter Fang Jianping of Tangshan told Chinese media after he voted to eliminate presidential term limits for President Xi in March 2018. Fang was ordained a bishop in Beijing in 2000 without Vatican approval and then legitimized by the Holy See two years later.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has promoted a campaign of “Sinicization” of all religion in China, “a far-reaching strategy to control, govern, and manipulate all aspects of faith into a socialist mold infused with ‘Chinese characteristics,’” according to the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom 2018 report.

New regulations on religious practice in China went into effect in February 2018 that codify the increased scrutiny and pressure on religious activities in China. On September 10, the Chinese government placed further restrictions on evangelization, making it illegal for any religious prayers, catechesis or preaching to be published online. This is being enforced via the country’s extensive internet censorship.

Last month, the United Nations voiced alarm over reports that the Chinese government is detaining up to 1 million Uyghur muslims involuntarily in re-education internment camps.

The U.S. State Department has designated China as a “Country of Particular Concern” for religious freedom every year since 1999.