Vatican party in Beijing for talks on sealing ties

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 June, 2006, 12:00am

First visit in six years shows deal in sight for switch from Taiwan, say observers

A high-level Vatican delegation is in Beijing for secret negotiations with the Foreign Ministry on the possible re-establishment of diplomatic relations.

It is the first time senior Vatican officials have visited the mainland on a formal diplomatic mission since 2000, when negotiations between the two sides halted following Beijing's protest against the Vatican's canonisation of 120 Chinese martyrs.

Observers said the week-long trip led by two senior Vatican officials meant a deal for the Holy See to switch diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing was in sight, and showed that mutual goodwill had not been damaged by Beijing's ordination of two bishops without Vatican approval last month.

When asked to confirm the visit, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, head of the Hong Kong Catholic diocese, said it was a 'great development' that Vatican officials had been invited to continue the latest round of negotiations on Chinese soil.

'Since both sides have long indicated their wish to talk, it is a very good thing that Vatican officials are now talking with their Chinese counterparts in China. I think it is a friendly gesture [by Beijing].'

But Cardinal Zen cautioned that differences had to be settled before formal ties could be restored.

'I don't know about the details of the discussions, but I do not expect the talks will progress very quickly,' he said. 'Anyway, it is a good start. Beijing knows the two illicit ordinations of bishops were blunders and will not do it again.'

Two key outstanding issues are the Vatican's insistence that its right to appoint mainland bishops be respected, and the extent to which Beijing should relax its grip on religious freedom before diplomatic ties can be restored. Since the death of the previous pope, John Paul, informal contacts between the two sides have progressed to systematic dialogue. The South China Morning Post reported last week that mainland officials had entered a round of talks with the Holy See in Rome in recent weeks.

The latest talks are considered significant because despite a number of visits by top clerics to the mainland in recent years - such as visits by Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels last year and Washington's Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in 2003 - it is the first time a Vatican diplomatic mission has sat down at the negotiation table in Beijing since the talks broke down in 2000.

The delegation, which arrived in the capital on Sunday, was led by a senior Holy See negotiator and a senior official of the Vatican Secretariat of State.

Other than meeting mainland officials, the delegation will visit several mainland cultural sites. It is scheduled to depart for Rome on July 1.

The trip was a closely guarded secret by the Vatican as it fears any unwanted attention could derail the diplomatically delicate talks. The visit was originally scheduled to take place earlier this month but was postponed until last Sunday.

Beatrice Leung Kit-fun, a Taiwan-based expert on Sino-Vatican relations, described the trip as a breakthrough and said the talks could usher in a new chapter in diplomatic ties.

'If both sides can have a frank and constructive dialogue in Beijing, then I am certain that a deal will come very soon,' Professor Leung said. 'The fact that China agreed to meet Holy See officials in Beijing reflects positive thinking on the Beijing side.'