U.S. religious freedom commission ‘tremendously disappointed’ with Vatican-China deal renewal

The episcopal ordination of Francis Cui Qingqi in Wuhan, China, on Sept. 8, 2021 The episcopal consecration of Francis Cui Qingqi in Wuhan, China, Sept. 8, 2021. | www.chinacatholic.cn.

A commissioner of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) says the commission is “tremendously disappointed” with the Vatican’s Oct. 22 decision to renew for another two years its provisional agreement with the Chinese government on episcopal appointments. 

“I certainly understand as a Catholic that the Vatican is playing the long game here and not thinking about the immediate circumstances, but I think that these agreements have not produced any improvement in religious freedom for Catholics in China, and I think that the Holy See should really rethink its decision to dance with [President Xi Jinping] on this whole business,” USCIRF Commissioner Stephen Schneck said in a recent interview with Crux.

USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government agency that advises the U.S. government and investigates religious freedom violations around the world. The commission has been outspoken that China’s actions against the Uyghurs and other minorities in China’s northwest region of Xinjiang constitute genocide, an assertion that has drawn condemnation and sanctions from China. 

The provisional agreement between the Vatican and China gives the Chinese Communist Party — which is officially atheist — a say in the appointment of bishops. That deal was meant to unify the country’s 12 million Catholics, who are divided between the underground Church, which is persecuted and loyal to Rome, and the communist-administered Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. 

The agreement was first signed in September 2018 and renewed for another two years in October 2020. It remains unclear what the pope has granted and how the process is applied in practice, as the deal, like the negotiations, has remained secret. 

After the China deal was signed in 2018, state officials in different regions of China removed crosses and demolished church buildings, and underground Catholics and clergy have reported harassment and detention.

Xi has been harshly criticized for overseeing the persecution of religious believers of many stripes in China, including Christians and the Uyghurs. While introducing more restrictive rules on religious practice, Xi has been outspoken about his goal of infusing “religious theories with Chinese character” into the five official religions supervised by the government, including the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

“I just can’t imagine what’s going on now is worth that in the future,” Schneck said. “In fact, I would go as far as to say, this is my personal comment, but it looks to me that China may in fact be using this agreement to crack down further on underground Catholics in China, and if that’s the situation, then the Vatican’s actually losing ground with China, and not gaining ground at all.”

Schneck highlighted the high-profile arrests in recent years of Catholics such as Cardinal Joseph Zen. 

Zen, 90, the emeritus bishop of Hong Kong, has been an outspoken critic of the Vatican’s China deal. The cardinal was along with several others arrested in May along with other democracy activists under Hong Kong’s national security law. He is standing trial for failing properly to register a fund to provide legal aid to pro-democracy protesters. 

“I’m very concerned,” Schneck told Crux.

“It’s just really hard to imagine that whatever they might be hoping for in the long game; the immediate situation on the ground in China for Catholics is something that I think the Holy See should be concerned about.”

In an interview with Reuters published July 5, the pope defended the Vatican-China deal against its critics, saying, “Diplomacy is the art of the possible and of doing things to make the possible become a reality.”

He compared today’s critics and those who spoke negatively about the Vatican’s diplomatic decisions during the Cold War, when the popes struck deals with Eastern European communist governments in an attempt to protect the interests of the Catholic Church.

“Diplomacy is like that. When you face a blocked situation, you have to find the possible way, not the ideal way, out of it,” the pope said.

Pope Francis expressed his “availability” to meet with Xi while both men were in Kazakhstan in September, but China declined, according to a Reuters report citing an unnamed Vatican official. 

Speaking to Vatican News Oct. 22, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said the Vatican-China deal is “still in the experimentation phase.”

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“As is always the case, such difficult and delicate situations require adequate time for implementation in order to then be able to verify the effectiveness of the result and identify possible improvements,” he said in the interview.

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