China’s persecution of Catholics has escalated, according to Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, even as one Vatican official said the two sides are talking about opening a representative office in Beijing. According to spokesperson Joanne Ou, the Vatican has been requesting China’s permission for a representative office to be established since 1999. Yet, as the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) oppression of Catholics and other groups has intensified, she said, it shows that the agreement signed with the Vatican did not bring about an improvement in religious freedoms.
Vatican City State is the only European country to officially recognise Taiwan as the legitimate representative of China, despite pressure from the CCP to change its stance. Regarding the Vatican-CCP deal, Ms Ou said Taiwan’s consistent stance and hope is for it to improve religious freedom in China, while Taipei will continue to deepen its own ties with the Vatican based on common values. Ms Ou also said the fact Beijing had made solemn promises to the Vatican did not escape the Ministry’s notice.
Beijing now elects and appoints bishops through the Bishops Conference of Catholic Church in China (BCCCC). The objective is a gradual merger of the Underground Catholic Church into the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA). Beijing has sought control over the Church given that China’s estimated 97 million Christians now outnumber members of the CCP itself. It is estimated that 20 to 50 million Chinese Christians have experienced persecution in recent years. Today in China, all religious education is illegal for under-18s. Meanwhile, all churches registered with the authorities are now monitored with CCTV.
Numbers are hard to verify but there is credible evidence of persecution of Christians across China, with churches demolished and clerics imprisoned – the most high-profile being Cardinal Joseph Zen in Hong Kong, on suspicion of “colluding with foreign forces”. His trial is set for September. Cardinal Zen is not a lone case. Bishop Joseph Zhang Weizhu, arrested in May 2021, is still unaccounted for, while Bishop Augustine Cui Tai has been in jail on and off since 2007, and has been reportedly subject to torture.
In a recent interview with America magazine, Archbishop Paul Gallagher – the Vatican’s secretary for relations with states – said the Vatican will soon appoint diplomats to its study office in Hong Kong and diplomatic mission in Taiwan. On the deal itself, Archbishop Gallagher said: “The balance sheet, I suppose, is not terribly impressive. We’ve had six episcopal appointments, and there are some others in the pipeline. So, it’s not without results. I suppose we would have liked to see more results, and there’s much work to be done. But the agreement is delivering to a certain extent.” The archbishop indicated however a desire for a high-level meeting, “eventually, possibly, preparing the way for a meeting between Xi Jinping and the Holy Father.”
The archbishop also said, “I think it would be premature to sign definitively the agreement”, but both sides will need “to negotiate whether we renew it for a year or two years”. Archbishop Gallagher believes the deal will however be renewed. When asked about the fact Cardinal Zen cannot travel to the consistory to create new cardinals, Archbishop Gallagher merely replied: “Well, if he hasn’t got travel documents, he can’t travel.” When it comes to the deteriorating situation in Hong Kong, the archbishop said, “I think we will be encouraging our people to make the best of the freedom that they have”. Such words will offer little comfort to people in Hong Kong or China.
The Vatican – given its close ties with Taiwan and the fact it is not burdened by the kind of economic considerations which other countries need to factor in with China – has a rare opportunity to take a stand (or, at the very least, make renewal of the deal conditional on release of senior clerics). Instead, the Holy See appears to be giving the CCP a fairly free pass. A strong message would send shockwaves around the world, not least in Catholic countries like Brazil and the Philippines, which have had ambiguous relations with the CCP of late. The latest intervention from Taiwan is yet a further reminder of the condition of Chinese Christians, and one the Church must not ignore.
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