While introducing more restrictive rules on religious practice, President Xi Jinping's repeatedly stated goal has been the "sinicization" of religions. The authorities have sought to diffuse "religious theories with Chinese character" into the five official religions supervised by the government, including the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. This has included instructing Chistian churches to remove images of the Ten Commandments and replace them with the sayings of Chairman Mao and Xi.
In March 2018, the Chinese government instituted a major change in its religious regulation by placing the management of religions, including Catholicism, under the direct control of the Chinese Communist Party's United Front Work Department (UFWD). 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.
Despite mounting international condemnation of China's internment of more than a million Uyghurs in detention camps, neither Pope Francis nor the Holy See has commented publicly on the situation.
Cardinal Joseph Zen, the emeritus Bishop of Hong Kong, attributes this silence to the Vatican's ongoing diplomatic talks with the Chinese government.
"It seems that in order to save the agreement, the Holy See is closing both eyes on all the injustices that the Communist Party inflicts on the Chinese people," Zen wrote Oct. 7.
The Vatican-China agreement gave CCP officials a say in the ordination of bishops, but also allowed for the enforcement of "sinicization" in Church matters, Zen said.
Cardinal Parolin has previously compared "sinicization'" to the Church's practice of "inculturation," saying in 2019 that "these two terms … refer to each other without confusion and without opposition."
In his most recent comments to journalists this week, Parolin said that the contents of the Sino-Vatican agreement would not be made public. But he added that what has been agreed to thus far "does not envisage the establishment of diplomatic relations."
"On both sides, as long as the agreement is ad experimentum [provisional], it was decided to keep the contents confidential," Parolin said,
"For the moment there is no talk of diplomatic relations, we are focused on the Church," he said. "The agreement does not concern diplomatic relations nor does it envisage the establishment of diplomatic relations. The agreement concerns the situation of the Church, a specific point which are the appointments of bishops and the difficulties that exist and that we hope to tackle through dialogue."
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Courtney Mares is a Rome Correspondent for Catholic News Agency. A graduate of Harvard University, she has reported from news bureaus on three continents and was awarded the Gardner Fellowship for her work with North Korean refugees.