No sign of a thaw in ties between Beijing and Holy See, despite ordination of Vatican-chosen bishop in Henan

Emanuele Scimia cautions against reading too much into the ordination of a Vatican-approved bishop in Henan, given the continued restrictions

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 August, 2015, 1:54pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 August, 2015, 1:54pm

The "bipartisan" ordination of Father Joseph Zhang Yinlin as coadjutor bishop of Anyang diocese, in Henan province, has raised expectations for a thaw in relations between the Holy See and Beijing. In reality, the Chinese government's recent moves to clamp down on religious freedom is demonstrating that the Communist Party and the Catholic Church have yet to find a (mutually beneficial) modus vivendi on the mainland.

Zhang was consecrated on August 4 with Vatican approval and the recognition of Beijing, the first such ordination since July 2012. Some observers have interpreted his installation as a return to a tacit agreement that sees Beijing appointing only Vatican-approved candidates for bishop.

The Holy See severed diplomatic ties with China in 1951, two years after the Communists came to power. Beijing oversees more than 12 million Catholics on the mainland through the party-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

President Xi Jinping reaffirmed the government's control over religions at a time when proposed legislative changes to the Criminal Law would further squeeze religious freedom

With Pope Francis' support, China and the Vatican restarted a political dialogue in June last year. The main bone of contention between them is the association's power to ordain its own bishops without papal approval.

Father Bernardo Cervellera - director of AsiaNews, a Catholic news agency based in Rome - has cautioned that the significance of Zhang's ordination as bishop should not be exaggerated, saying that it was largely due to the good relations that the Anyang diocese has forged with Beijing.

Though voices are mounting that another Vatican-endorsed nominee for bishop, Father Cosmos Ji Chengyi of Zhumadian , Henan, is set to be consecrated, recent events look likely to bear Cervellera out.

In the past two months, two Chinese excommunicated bishops have ordained priests in Heilongjiang province, according to a Catholic press agency. In May, President Xi Jinping reaffirmed the government's control over religions at a time when proposed legislative changes to the Criminal Law would further squeeze religious freedom.

Epitomising this repressive trend is the campaign by local authorities in Zhejiang province to remove crosses from churches and other buildings or ban their display.

The Catholic diocese in Hong Kong, meanwhile, still has doubts about Beijing's sincerity in reaching out to the Vatican. Key problems remain unresolved, such as the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association's role, state-managed ordinations, the fate of imprisoned bishops and, in general, limitations to Catholics' freedom of expression, movement, assembly and association.

Emanuele Scimia is an independent journalist and geopolitical analyst