Vatican should speak up on China, scholar says

A view of St Peters Basilica in Vatican City Jan 25 2015 Credit Bohumil Petrik CNA 3 CNA 1 26 15 St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, Jan. 25, 2015. / Bohumil Petrik/CNA.

A Swedish scholar who studies China has called for the Vatican to speak up about human rights abuses by the Chinese government, noting that "dialogue on equal terms is not what is happening."

"China should be treated like any other country and play by the same rules as others," Fredrik Fällman, Associate Professor of Sinology at the University of Gothenburg, wrote in a March 19 column at East Asia Forum.

"The Catholic Church often comments on the situation in other countries. Yet in China, the Vatican keeps silent on many concerning developments - including structural religious persecution, labour rights issues and human rights abuses against the Uyghurs. It seems Vatican officials are holding China to a different standard compared to other countries."

In 2018, the Vatican reached an agreement with the Chinese government on the appointment of bishops. The terms of the agreement, which was renewed in October 2020 for two more years, have never been publicly revealed.

The agreement was undertaken to help unite the state-run Church and the underground Church. An estimated 6 million Catholics are registered with the Chinese Communist Party, while several million are estimated to belong to unregistered Catholic communities which have remained loyal to the Holy See.

According to Joseph Cardinal Zen, Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, Christians in China have continued to be persecuted and harassed by authorities, "despite the agreement."

The policy of "sinicization", announced by Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2015, aims to enforce Chinese and communist identity on all religious practice in the country. It has included instructing churches to remove images of the Ten Commandments and replace them with sayings of Mao Zedong and Xi.

Fällman noted that even in Hong Kong, where religious people enjoy more freedom than on the mainland, Beijing has been tightening its control over religion in recent years, most recently by way of a "national security" law which came into force last summer.

Under the new law, a number of Catholics in Hong Kong have been arrested and charged with terrorism, sedition, and foreign collusion.

The Diocese of Hong Kong remains vacant, as the diocese has been led since 2019 by John Cardinal Tong, who retired in 2017 and took the helm again after Hong Kong's previous bishop died unexpectedly. Successive candidates selected by the Vatican, and approved by Pope Francis, have had to be withdrawn over political concerns.

"The impending choice of a new [Hong Kong bishop] will undoubtedly create more tensions as he will be scrutinised for where his allegiance lies. The choice of a 'pro-Beijing' bishop will not go down well among many Hong Kongers, while the choice of a more independent and critical bishop may put pressure on Hong Kong Catholics," Fällman noted.

He added, "If the Vatican wants to restore the order of episcopal appointments and do away with clandestine practices, then it must engage in dialogue with any necessary counterpart - 'pro-Beijing' or not."

According to new rules set to take effect on May 1, 2021, the state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association will be responsible for selecting episcopal candidates. The candidates will then be "approved and consecrated by the Chinese Catholic Bishops' Conference."

The rules reportedly do not mention any role of the Vatican in approving bishops, despite the 2018 Vatican-China agreement reportedly involving both Chinese authorities and the Holy See in the process of appointing bishops.

"There needs to be an international coalition between Christians, and perhaps other religious groups, to put pressure on China," Fällman concluded.

"Here the Vatican could play a central role with its strength and experience, which would also benefit the achievement of the 'pastoral' aspects sought with the current Sino-Vatican agreement. True dialogue includes frank criticism and is the key to making real steps forward in relations with China."

Cardinal Zen told CNA last year that the Church's silence on the mass detention and abuses of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, supposedly as a result of negotiations to renew the 2018 agreement, "will damage the work of evangelization" there in the future.

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Pope Francis has remained silent on what some human rights groups have called "genocide" of Uyghurs in China's northwest.

"The resounding silence will damage the work of evangelization," Zen told CNA in an interview last year.

"Tomorrow when people will gather to plan the new China, the Catholic Church may not be welcome."

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