Beijing paving way to renew Vatican links

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 June, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 June, 2005, 12:00am

Appointment of bishops could still be stumbling block

Beijing has quietly been conducting exchanges with the Vatican to pave the way for diplomatic ties to be re-established, according to church sources and academics.

In a sign of gathering momentum, Beijing is planning a working group on religious affairs to improve co-ordination on the issue.

Membership will include the State Administration of Religious Affairs, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Public Security and the United Front Department of the Communist Party.

Beijing ordered Catholics to break ties with the Vatican in 1951 and appoints its own bishops.

Contact between the two sides was halted in 2000 when the Vatican canonised 120 martyrs who died in China, including some considered to be traitors by Beijing.

The impetus for the bilateral exchanges came last September when a delegation from the State Council's Development Research Centre visited Milan for a conference organised by the Community of Sant'Egidio.

The Sant'Egidio combines social activism with spiritual seriousness and has strong ties with the Vatican. There was heated criticism of the US war on Iraq, and the Chinese delegation, impressed by the discussion, began to cultivate ties.

'A junket turned out to bear fruit that no one had anticipated,' a source said.

A high-level representative of Sant'Egidio was invited to the mainland early this year and the same State Council group would return to Rome this month, sources said. The death of Pope John Paul II in April raised hopes that diplomatic ties could be re-established, since he was seen as being responsible for the downfall of communist regimes in eastern Europe.

To seize the initiative, a high-level Foreign Ministry official and a top Vatican foreign policy official met in Rome before Pope Benedict was installed. The Pope has expressed a wish to establish ties with countries that do not have diplomatic relations with the Vatican.

One intractable issue could be the appointment of bishops, as the officially sanctioned mainland church insists on consecrating its own prelates. Over the years, the Vatican has given its blessing to new Chinese bishops, thereby 'legitimising' them.

The problem may come to a head when a successor has to be found for Beijing Bishop Michael Fu Tieshan , 74, who has been fighting cancer and may set a precedent by retiring at 75.