Human rights activist: Diplomatic relations between Vatican and China would be ‘totally unacceptable’

British human rights campaigner Benedict Rogers British human rights campaigner Benedict Rogers | Courtesy photo

A British human rights activist said on Sunday that it would be “totally unacceptable” for the Vatican to establish formal diplomatic relations with China.

Benedict Rogers suggested on Feb. 6 that the Vatican could be preparing to take the step after moving officials from posts in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

He pointed to the Vatican’s decision to transfer a representative in Taiwan to Africa, leaving its apostolic nunciature in the country without high-level diplomatic representation.

The Vatican announced on Jan. 31 that Msgr. Arnaldo Catalan, the chargé d’affaires since 2019, would move from Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, to Rwanda, where he will serve as apostolic nuncio.

On Feb. 5, Pope Francis named Msgr. Javier Herrera Corona, head of the Holy See Study Mission in Hong Kong since January 2020, as the new apostolic nuncio in the Republic of the Congo and Gabon.

Writing on his Twitter account, Rogers asked if the Vatican was on “the brink of establishing diplomatic relations” with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which has ruled China since 1949.

“It would be totally unacceptable and outrageous if that was so,” he said. “Catholics must speak out with one voice around the world to stop this.”

He appealed to Pope Francis to replace the officials in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and “to reassure us that the Vatican will retain diplomatic relations with Taiwan and not establish relations with [the] CCP.”

The communist People’s Republic of China broke off relations with the Holy See in 1951. But in 2018, the Vatican and Beijing signed a provisional agreement on the appointment of Catholic bishops.

Ahead of the deal’s renewal in 2020, the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said that the pact was “only a starting point” for better relations between the two states.

He acknowledged that China’s more than 10 million Catholics faced “many other problems” and that “the road to full normalization will still be a long one.”

The Vatican formally established diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1942. Today, it is one of a small number of states that continues to maintain full diplomatic ties with the country officially known as the Republic of China.

The CCP views Taiwan as a rebel province and has historically put pressure on countries to break off diplomatic relations with the island.

Parolin told journalists in October 2020 that “for the moment there is no talk of diplomatic relations” with China. The comments were welcomed by Taiwan’s foreign ministry.

Rogers is the founder of Hong Kong Watch, a U.K.-based organization monitoring human rights, freedoms, and rule of law in the city on China’s southern coast, which is home to around 389,000 Catholics.

The charity, founded in 2017, occupies much of his time, but he also works as a senior analyst on East Asia for the human rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).

Rogers told CNA in a Feb. 4 phone interview that pro-Beijing media had recently singled out the Catholic Church in Hong Kong for criticism.

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He said that the state-owned newspaper Ta Kung Pao published four critical articles in quick succession, including “a specific attack” on Cardinal Joseph Zen, the 90-year-old bishop emeritus of Hong Kong.

“The thing that’s concerning about these articles is that typically when Beijing is intending to implement a new campaign or a new initiative against any particular group, very often the first step they take is to sort of trail it in the pro-Beijing media,” said Rogers, who converted to Catholicism in 2013.

He explained that the articles came amid growing threats to religious freedom in Hong Kong following the 2019-2020 pro-democracy protests and the passage of the contentious National Security Law in June 2020.

He cited advice to priests issued by Cardinal John Tong Hon, the then apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Hong Kong, in the wake of the law, warning clergy of the need to “watch our language” in homilies.

“It shouldn’t surprise us that religious freedom is coming under threat for two reasons,” Rogers said. “Firstly, when freedom itself is dismantled, religious freedom sooner or later is going to be impacted, and Hong Kong’s freedoms have been dismantled over the last few years.”

“Religion and the Church, in particular, are one of the last remaining potential targets that until now has been less impacted than others. We’ve seen the dismantling of press freedom, the imprisonment of pro-democracy legislators, the impact on academic freedom, and so, in a sense, religious freedom is the next obvious target.”

“The second point is that the regime in Beijing has always had a hostility towards religion and, as it takes more and more direct control of Hong Kong again, that makes it more likely that religion will be in its sights.”

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Rogers was denied entry to Hong Kong in October 2017 and believes he is probably banned from the city for life.

He may be banned permanently from mainland China too as an organization he co-founded, the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, was among the U.K. entities hit with Chinese sanctions in March 2021.

He encouraged Christians worldwide to alert their local political representatives to the threats to religious freedom in Hong Kong. He said it was important to “send a message to Beijing” that its moves were not going unnoticed.

Rogers added that he would encourage people not to watch the Winter Olympics, currently taking place in Beijing. Human rights campaigners have dubbed the event “the Genocide Games,” pointing to the Chinese government’s crackdown on the Uyghur minority in the northwestern territory of Xinjiang.

“Before the Games, I had been encouraging people to consider a consumer boycott of the sponsors of the Games,” he said.

“Obviously, the Games are now underway so that’s a bit more difficult, but not watching it would definitely be something I’d encourage.”

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