Human rights advocates have raised concerns about heightened restrictions on Christians in China after Pope Francis expressed hope that the Holy See’s agreement with Beijing will be renewed in the fall.

Nearly four years after the Holy See entered into an agreement with Chinese authorities in September 2018, Pope Francis told Reuters in an interview published this week that he believes “the agreement is moving well.” 

Human rights advocates disagree.

Nina Shea, the director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, told CNA on July 6 that since the agreement was signed in 2018 “the CCP has all but destroyed the Catholic underground church and tightened conformity with its teachings over the patriotic church.” 

“The six new episcopal appointments used to justify the Beijing agreement are offset by the detention, arrest or disappearance of six Vatican-recognized Catholic bishops,” Shea said.

“Children are now banned from churches and exposure to religion, Bibles are tightly restricted and censored on the Internet and in app stores, churches are blanketed with high tech state surveillance, priests and Christian leaders are forced into life-long indoctrination on Christianity according to communist thought, and required to actively support CCP practices, leadership, and core values, even in their sermons,” she added.

Bishop Paul Lei Shiyin of Leshan, one of the illegitimately ordained Chinese bishops whose excommunication was lifted after the Vatican and China signed the agreement, recently celebrated the birth of the Chinese Communist Party in his local cathedral on June 29, the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul.

Catholics who attended the ceremony in the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Leshan were invited to “listen to the word of the Party, feel the grace of the Party, and follow the Party,” according to Asia News.

“Since the deal was reached, things have gone from bad to worse for Catholics in China,” Reggie Littlejohn told CNA.

More in Asia - Pacific

Littlejohn is the president of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, an aid and advocacy organization that works with women on the ground in China. The organization was founded in response to forced abortion and sterilization under China’s one-child policy

She said that the “secrecy of the China-Vatican deal has been used to bludgeon faithful Chinese Catholics.”

Littlejohn called on the Vatican to release the text of the Holy See’s provisional agreement with the Chinese Communist Party government, which has been kept secret since the agreement was first signed in 2018.

“Faithful Catholics cannot defend themselves or their Church because they do not have access to this secret deal,” she said.

When discussing the Holy See’s diplomacy with China, Pope Francis said that “diplomacy is the art of the possible and of doing things to make the possible become a reality.”

Shea responded: “It’s difficult to see how the Pope can possibly succeed in the art of diplomacy when dealing with a force as evil as the CCP.”

“I think the Vatican should be energetically bolstering the underground church and speaking up for human rights, not making accommodations with the CCP and self-censoring on important moral issues,” she said.

(Story continues below)

Recent restrictions on religious groups in China

New Chinese government measures, which came into effect on June 1, also place the financial management of places of worship and religious donations under the control of the United Front Work Department.

The United Front has the task of ensuring that groups outside of the CCP, such as Xinjiang Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Hong Kong democracy activists, and the Catholic Patriotic Association, are following the party line. Xi Jinping has called the United Front Work Department one of his "magic weapons," used to co-opt and control.

Asia News reported that under the new measures religious groups’ finances and operations will be monitored by the government. 

Catholic priests who minister in China legally are required to sign a paper in which they promise to support the Communist Party in China. They are only allowed to minister in recognized places of worship in which minors under the age of 18 are not allowed to enter.

Since March 2022 religious groups in China have been barred from conducting any religious activities online without first applying and receiving approval from the provincial Department of Religious Affairs, according to Asia News. Homilies and livestream Masses can only be posted online after obtaining a special license.

European Parliament resolution

Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen, a vocal critic of the Vatican-China deal, will face trial in September along with four other prominent democracy advocates. 

The European Parliament is set to discuss Zen’s arrest in regard to human rights and rule of law on July 7. The resolution calls for the Hong Kong government to drop all charges against  the retired bishop of Hong Kong. 

The resolution also “calls on the Vatican to strengthen its diplomatic efforts and its leverage on Chinese authorities to demand Cardinal Zen’s unconditional release and the end of persecution and human rights violations in China.”