The Chinese government is stepping up aggression against religion; is the 2018 Vatican-China deal still working?

By Christina Deardurff

A number of Christian churches in Lu’an were left without crosses (photo from the BITTER WINTER website). Top, the buildings with crosses; second row, after the crosses were removed.

Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli

The Vatican’s interim 2-year agreement with the Communist Chinese government, signed September 22, 2018, is set to expire in September of this year, and it remains unclear whether the Vatican will — and perhaps more importantly, should—renew the deal for another year, or even two.

The agreement, which stipulated among other things that the Chinese government would select the country’s new bishops but that final approval would belong to the Holy See, also regularized China’s previously government-appointed bishops (those of the government-sponsored Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association [CPA], as opposed to the “underground” Chinese Catholic Church, which has always maintained communion with the Holy See), allowing many of them to be recognized by the Vatican. But according to the South China Post, the agreement has to date failed to produce results in new bishop

Hong Kong’s retired archbishop, Cardinal Joseph Zen

appointments: “No new heads have been chosen for the 52 bishop-less dioceses in the two years since the agreement was signed, according to sources with knowledge of the negotiations, who declined to be named.”

The intention of the agreement, as indicated by its architects, was to bring unity to Catholics in China, fractured by membership in two competing versions of the Church. The hope seemed to be that Vatican-Chinese government cooperation would lead to the eventual amalgamation of all Catholics into one Chinese Catholic Church, retaining enough Vatican affiliation to remain Catholic while still meeting the government’s requirements of Sinicization.

One of the agreement’s architects, Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, told an interviewer June 7, “We have to see what to do after this [September 2020] deadline. I think we should probably reconfirm it for one or two years.”

But Hong Kong’s retired archbishop, Cardinal Joseph Zen, an outspoken critic of the agreement, warns that the 2018 agreement has further marginalized the faithful of the Vatican-loyal “underground” Church and increased pressure on Catholics to join the government’s Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association by pointing to the Vatican’s acquiescence to its demands for oversight of choice of bishops.

Cardinal Zen said of the situation in a March 2020 blog post that “during the last 20 years, because of the wrong policy of the Holy See in dealing with the Church in China, pursued by a group of people who dared even not to follow the line of the Pope, the underground community was more and more like abandoned, considered inconvenient, almost as an obstacle to unity, while in the community officially recognized by the Government the ‘opportunists’ grow more and more numerous, fearless and defiant because encouraged by people inside and around the Vatican, intoxicated by their illusions of the Ostpolitik. [The word “Ostpolitik,” which means “Eastern policy,” refers to all aspects of the policy of the Vatican toward the Soviet Union, in the East of Europe, and by extension, also to the Communist regime in China.]

The deal, whose exact contents remain a secret, has so far resulted in five “underground” bishops being installed by the CPA.

However, Catholic clergy in China are required by law to “register” with the government, and many clergies of the “underground” church began to appeal to Rome to ask whether they should do so. The registration also contained an affirmation of the independence, autonomy, and self-administration of the Church in China — part of a campaign of “Sinicization” of all religions in order, ostensibly, to root out foreign influence in society.

State-sanctioned church appoints fifth underground bishop

Bishops pose for a photograph after the public installation of Bishop Paul Ma Cunguo of Shuozhou on July 9, 2020

The state-sanctioned Catholic Church in Communist China approved and installed another underground bishop loyal to the Vatican. Bishop Paul Ma Cunguo, 49, of Shuozhou was installed at a public ceremony in Shanxi province on July 9. He is the fifth underground bishop to be recognized by the state-sanctioned Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA) since the Vatican and China signed a September 2018 deal.

A Church source told UCA News that the Vatican representative in Hong Kong had no prior knowledge of the episcopal installation.

Social media circulated a copy of Bishop Ma’s oath, which, unlike that of the previous four bishops installed by the state-backed Church, had no insistence on working for “an independent, self-governing Church” in China. (UCA News)

In response, the Vatican issued a set of directives in September 2019, which advised priests that they may, in good conscience, sign the registration and statement, but included a further recommendation to add a sentence affirming respect for authentic Catholic doctrine, if possible. The Vatican also said, conversely, that no priest should be forced to sign the statement if his interpretation of it was opposed to his conscience.

Unfortunately, examples of clergy who have been hounded and detained by the government for refusing to register have been documented, including Bishop Vincent Guo Xijin of the diocese of Mindong. According to Asia News, Bishop Guo was placed under the supervision of two state security officials in November of 2019 and visited daily in an attempt to force him to sign the registration. He finally escaped and went into hiding.

The majority of the diocese’s priests had also refused to sign. Also of note is the Chinese government’s simultaneous campaign to demolish Christian churches and remove all crosses from the roofs of any buildings visible to the public.

“All Christian symbols are ordered to be removed as part of the government’s crackdown campaign,” a state employee from Ma’anshan city told the website Bitter Winter, which follows human rights abuses in Communist China. In the Anhui province alone, crosses have been removed from more than 250 Christian churches.

“As crosses are being removed throughout the country, those who refuse to cooperate will be accused of opposing the Communist Party,” a Christian congregation member added. “We are pressured to give up our faith, but we will persevere.”

When asked about this phenomenon in an interview on the Italian television show Stanze Vaticane, Archbishop Celli replied: “It is undeniable that there are still situations that require a journey. It will not be easy. The Holy See still wants to continue. We want to move forward and we want to reach normality in which a Chinese Catholic can express all of his fidelity to the Gospel and also with respect for his being Chinese. I always say I use a very simple expression, that the Catholic Church in China must be fully Chinese, but it must also be fully Catholic.”

The crucifix at the altar was replaced with the government propaganda slogan, “Do Not Forget the Original Intention; Keep the Mission in Mind.”

Meanwhile, reports continue to filter through internet censors in China about the persecution of Catholic congregations who refuse to join the government-controlled CCPA. Last year, Fuzhou city government officials raided an unregistered Catholic church —which had been disguised by the congregation as a traditional Chinese “ancestral hall”— and ordered the church permanently emptied. The crucifix at the altar was replaced with the government propaganda slogan, “Do Not Forget the Original Intention; Keep the Mission in Mind.”

In another bid for power over all religion, the State Administration for Religious Affairs and the Ministry of Civil Affairs last year adopted the “Template for a Charter of Legal Persons in Religious Activity Venues.”

According to Bitter Winter, “The order, which came into effect on April 1 last year, demands that all religious venues must establish a ‘democratic management committee.’ The body must be administered by a director, no more than three deputies, and several members in charge of making decisions on the appointment of personnel, finances, formulation of internal regulations, and other activities.”

Another Cardinal Takes Up the Alarm about China

Myanmar’s Cardinal Bo Blasts China’s Communist party

Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon, Myanmar, head of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences

Myanmar’s Francis-appointed Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, 71, president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, has lately been an outspoken critic of the Chinese government, both in its handling of the COVID-19 epidemic and regarding the new security laws that it imposed on Hong Kong July 1.

On April 2, Cardinal Bo released a message in which he criticized the Chinese government’s delays in reporting COVID 19 infections, saying “it is the repression, the lies and the corruption of the CCP that are responsible” for the pandemic.

UCA News called the cardinal’s criticisms — which included calls for reparations from China — “unprecedented.”

Cardinal Bo also mentioned campaigns of repression being carried out by the ruling CCP, especially against religion. “In particular,” he said, “the regime has launched a campaign against religion, resulting in the destruction of thousands of churches and crosses and the incarceration of at least one million Uyghur Muslims in concentration camps.” Then, on July 2, Bo released another statement expressing fears over the new “National Security Law” imposed on Hong Kong July 1 by the Chinese government, saying in mainland China, they are “suffering the most severe restrictions experienced since the Cultural Revolution.”

“Even if freedom of worship in Hong Kong is not directly or immediately affected, the new security law and its broad criminalization of ‘subversion,’ ‘secession’ and ‘colluding with foreign political forces’ could result in the monitoring of religious preaching, the criminalization of candlelit prayer vigils, and the harassment of places of worship,” the cardinal said. (ITV staff)

The committee members, who must support the Chinese Communist Party’s policies, “take over the decision-making right from people of faith,” says the website.

Against the backdrop of China’s ongoing violation of human rights on its mainland, the island of Hong Kong, a protectorate of the United Kingdom until it was handed over to China in 1997, has just experienced the loss of its freedoms that were once guaranteed in its law.

The Chinese government aggressively instituted a series of 41new “national security” laws in Hong Kong on the last day of June which have effectively ended freedoms of speech and assembly, among others, criminalizing anyone who not only advocates for independence for Hong Kong, but who is seen in any way as a threat to Chinese “national security.”

Below, a cross being removed from the Gulou Church in Fuyang city, China

Some outspoken independence advocates promptly left the island for fear of arrest and imprisonment. Although Hong Kong has, until now, retained limited civil liberties and democracy since coming under Chinese control, the new laws, passed in secret and not revealed until their 11 p.m., June 30 implementation, explicitly override any Hong Kong law.

The website Axios noted that Article 38 of the national security law states that it applies to those who commit the offenses against the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region “from outside the Region by a person who is not a permanent resident of the Region.”

Wang Minyao, a Chinese-American lawyer based in New York, told Axios, “It literally applies to every single person on the planet.”

It remains to be seen whether the Vatican can continue to deal constructively with a regime so committed to increasing its power in virtually every sphere of human existence — and whether Cardinal Zen is correct when he calls the agreement which is up for renewal “immoral” and “against the Catholic conscience.”

Pope Francis himself conceded that the agreement fell short of the Holy See’s desires, but unavoidably so: “You know that when you make a peace agreement or a negotiation, both sides lose something,” he said. “This is the law. Both sides. And you move ahead.”

What Does the Accord Really Say?

Chinese pilgrims during an audience with Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square.

Pope Francis dropped a reference to Hong Kong, and a plea for religious freedom there, from his message at his Sunday public audience on July 5. The omitted passage ran: “I hope therefore that all the people involved will know how to face the various problems with a spirit of far-sighted wisdom and authentic dialogue. This requires courage, humility, non-violence, and respect for the dignity and rights of all. I thus express the desire that societal freedom, and especially religious freedom, be expressed in full and true liberty, as indeed various international documents provide for it.”

The curious omission of those sentiments led to speculation that the Pope’s message — mild as it was — was suppressed out of concern it might provoke an angry reaction from sensitive officials in Beijing. The Vatican has been careful to maintain friendly relations with the Chinese regime and has avoided public expressions of concern about threats to religious liberty.

Vatican officials are reportedly anxious to renew a secret agreement with Beijing, governing the appointment of new bishops in China. (CNA)

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