A possible Vatican agreement with the Chinese government has prompted feelings of unease and fears of betrayal, Cardinal Joseph Zen has warned in a strong statement continuing his criticism of negotiations.

"In recent days, the brothers and sisters living on the Chinese mainland have learned that the Vatican is ready to surrender to the Chinese communist party, and therefore they feel uneasy," Cardinal Zen wrote in a Feb. 5 Chinese-language blog post translated and posted to Settimo Cielo, the site of Vatican reporter Sandro Magister at the Italian newspaper L'Espresso.

"Seeing that the illegitimate and excommunicated bishops will be legitimized, and the legitimate ones will be forced to retire, it is logical that the legitimate and clandestine bishops should be concerned about their fate," continued the cardinal, the archbishop emeritus of Hong Kong.

"How many nights of suffering will the priests and laity endure, to think that they will have to bow down to and obey those bishops who are now illegitimate and excommunicated, but tomorrow will be legitimized by the Holy See, supported by the government?" Zen asked.

The 86-year-old cardinal's words are among the latest developments amid continued reports that the Holy See is nearing a deal to regularize relations with the officially communist Chinese government.

The deal could involve some bishops loyal to the Holy See retiring or accepting a lower position, to make way for bishops illicitly ordained-although one elderly bishop is apparently refusing a request that he retire. The new deal would also apparently outline government and Vatican roles in the selection of future bishops. Reportedly, the deal would have the Vatican propose bishops and the Chinese government having the final say over these Vatican-vetted candidates.

The Church in China is complicated by the relationship between the government-supported Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and the underground Church, which includes priests and bishops who are not recognized by the government.

Every bishop recognized by Beijing must be a member of the patriotic association. Many bishops appointed by the Vatican are not recognized or approved by the Chinese government, and many have faced government persecution. At the same time, not all bishops appointed by the Chinese government have been approved by the Vatican, and thus their ordinations were in violation of church law.

The Chinese government is cracking down on unrecognized religion, according to Cardinal Zen.

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"As of Feb. 1, new government rules on religious activity have gone into effect," he said. "The clandestine priests of Shanghai have asked the faithful not to go to their Masses anymore, because those who persist in doing so will be arrested! But do not be afraid, because the Lord heals the brokenhearted."

Cardinal Zen, who has criticized the negotiations, had traveled to Rome for a visit with Pope Francis early Jan. 10 to discuss the possible agreement. Writing in a Jan. 29 blog post, the cardinal said the Pope told him he explicitly wanted to avoid "another Mindszenty case," referring to the Hungarian cardinal who suffered persecution and imprisonment under Hungary's communist government, then was ordered to leave the country by the Holy See, under government pressure.

The cardinal said the Pope was "surprised" and "promised to look into the matter" when told about the deal. However, the Vatican immediately responded to the cardinal's comments and in a Jan. 30 statement said Francis is well-informed of the dialogue with China, so "it is therefore surprising and regrettable that the contrary is affirmed by people in the Church, thus fostering confusion and controversy."

In his latest remarks, Cardinal Zen criticized the words of Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Holy See's Secretary of State, who said in a Jan. 31 interview "we know the sufferings endured yesterday and today by the Chinese brothers and sisters."

"But does this man of little faith know what true suffering is?" Cardinal Zen asked. "The brothers and sisters of the Chinese mainland are not afraid of being reduced to poverty, of being put in prison, of shedding their blood: their greatest suffering is to see themselves betrayed by 'family'."

The Hong Kong cardinal contended that Cardinal Parolin had manipulated Pope Benedict XVI's 2007 letter to Chinese Catholics in the interview published Jan. 31 at Vatican Insider.

While Cardinal Parolin cited Benedict XVI's rejection of any solution that involves "an ongoing conflict with the legitimate civil authorities," Cardinal Zen said these remarks were "concealing" that the letter immediately continued: "at the same time, though, compliance with those authorities is not acceptable when they interfere unduly in matters regarding the faith and discipline of the Church."

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Cardinal Zen also cited Pope Francis' remarks to Asian bishops during his World Youth Day visit to Korea: "the prerequisite of dialogue is consistency with one's own identity."

The cardinal cited the words of a Vatican source who spoke to Reuters about the deal under consideration: "We are like birds in a cage, but the cage can become larger, we are asking for all the room possible."

In Cardinal Zen's view, "the real problem is not whether the cage is small or large, but who is in this cage."

"The clandestine believers are not in it. But now they want to force them as well to enter it, in such a way that they too may be 'reconciled' with those who are already inside!" he said. "Of course, in the cage are persons who find themselves trapped there, but also servile and overbearing persons who find themselves inside quite willingly."

As an aside, Cardinal Zen remarked that he has said in the past "in China there is only one Church and that all believers, both of the official Church and of the clandestine, love the Pope." He then added: "but now I no longer dare to say this."

He said he had discussed his opinions on dialogue to Pope Francis in a private audience three years before.

"When I told him that, objectively speaking, the official Church of the Chinese mainland is schismatic (in that it has an autonomous administration independent of the Holy See and dependent on the government), the Pope replied: 'Of course!'" the cardinal recounted.

Cardinal Zen said the Vatican's Jan. 30 response to his comments prompted some to visit or phone him to comfort him after the response, which he characterized as an "accusation."

"But they misunderstood, because I do not need to be comforted. It would have been better for them to have gone to comfort that spokesman. He is the one who is a bird in a cage, forced to carry out such an embarrassing function (and he was certainly reading what had been written by others)."

The cardinal agreed with a commentator in the South China Morning Post that the Vatican has to "readjust its worldly diplomacy, whatever its spiritual preferences."
Yet the cardinal added: "But they are not only preferences, they are nonnegotiable principles!"