.- During a luncheon Tuesday at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Hong Kong, Bishop Joseph Zen told reporters that the Vatican's policy on China has not changed under Pope Benedict XVI and that the Vatican desires to make every effort in order to normalize relations with Beijing.
A major sticking point in the establishment of relations has been the appointment of Catholic bishops. The Vatican has the sole right to do this; however, as it has with the government of Cuba, Bishop Zen suggested that the Vatican might want to compromise on the issue, "not to surrender completely, but to make some compromise so that the Beijing government may also have some say in that appointment of bishops".
China also demands the Vatican severe relations with Taiwan and refrain from "interfering" in China's internal affairs – for instance, agitating for religious freedom - before relations can be restored. Bishop Zen conceded that a switch to relations with Beijing would come at the expense of Taipei, with which the Vatican currently has diplomatic relations.
"The Holy See is ready to switch diplomatic relations with Taiwan to Beijing. Until now the Holy See never unilaterally abandoned any friend," he said. "So this time, it may be forced to make a painful decision, because otherwise the China authority would not accept dialogue with the Holy See”. But, the bishop cautioned, the Vatican should only accept normalization if Beijing will guarantee genuine religious freedom. "The Vatican should be sure that the Beijing government is going to grant a real religious freedom. It's unfair to switch diplomatic relations and to start negotiations later. Nobody works that way," he added.
Relations between Beijing and the Holy See have been severed for more than 50 years, since the Communists took power at the end of China's civil war and expelled the Vatican's ambassador in 1951--a move that was followed by the severance of diplomatic ties.
Bishop Zen says the Vatican has tried to discuss a restoration of ties with China in the past, but he says Beijing in recent years has not shown any interest in pursuing the matter despite visits by Vatican officials to the mainland.
The government only allows Catholics to worship in the state-sanctioned church, and officials and followers of the underground, Vatican-affiliated Church often face persecution.
The government's Patriotic Catholic church claims 4 million believers, but foreign experts say the unofficial church has 12 million followers. Bishop Zen said that both groups of Catholics would unite if China allowed them to have ties with the Vatican. "When they hear the voice of the Holy Father, they'll all be ready to obey," assured the Prelate, adding that there should not be a problem integrating the two groups because many of the bishops in the government-sanctioned church are already recognized by the Vatican.
Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, but under the "one country, two systems" principle, retains the freedoms it enjoyed under British colonial rule. The Catholic Church in Hong Kong is officially under Vatican supervision and operates without restrictions.