Bishop Stephen Chow of Hong Kong arrived yesterday in Beijing, the capital of China, on a historic trip — the first of its kind in almost 30 years — and amid some tensions between the Asian giant and the Vatican. 

Chow was appointed bishop of Hong Kong by Pope Francis in May 2021 and received episcopal consecration in December of that year.

The 63-year-old Jesuit prelate, who was invited by the local diocese and who will be in Beijing for five days, has previously pointed out the importance of the Church in Hong Kong being a bridge between China and the island.

Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China. Its citizens have historically enjoyed freedom of worship, while in mainland China there is a long history of persecution against Christians who defy the communist government.

With the passage of the new security law in 2020, the Chinese government gained more power to suppress pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, which the regime viewed as a direct threat to its power.

According to the Associated Press, the bishop of Hong Kong will meet the bishop of Beijing, Joseph Li Shan. He will also visit the National Seminary of the Catholic Church in China and will offer a Mass at the Xuanwumen Church.

The bishop will visit the tomb of the Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), one of the first members of the Society of Jesus to live in China.

Tensions with the Vatican

Chow’s trip comes two weeks after Bishop Joseph Shen Bin of Haimen was appointed as the new bishop of Shanghai by the Chinese Bishops’ Council, a communist-controlled episcopal conference.

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The appointment has not been approved by the Vatican.

The director of the Vatican Press Office, Matteo Bruni, noted on April 4 that “the Holy See had been informed a few days ago of the decision of the Chinese authorities” to transfer Bishop Shen Bin from Haimen to Shanghai “and learned of the installation from the media this morning.”

Bruni said that he had nothing to add to the Holy See’s assessment of the bishop’s transfer, at least for the moment.

This appointment would be a violation by China of the agreement signed with the Vatican to appoint bishops, approved in September 2018 and which has been renewed in 2020 and 2022. The details of the agreement have not been made public.

In an interview with EWTN News in March, Archbishop Richard Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, said the deal with China was the result of “negotiations over a period of about 30 years. So it was a long process under three pontificates.”

In that process, “the objective is to get the best deal possible, which certainly this agreement is not the best deal possible,” he said.

The agreement has been criticized on several occasions by Cardinal Joseph Zen, the 91-year-old bishop emeritus of Hong Kong.

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This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.