Pope Francis

Appointment of Pope Francis raises hopes of better China ties

Francis may open door for fresh dialogue with the Vatican to heal strained ties, observers say

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 March, 2013, 4:16pm

Political and religious figures expressed hope yesterday that relations between China and the Vatican would improve under the new pope.

After two days of conclave, Argentina's Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was appointed on Wednesday night to lead the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.

The Vatican is the only European state that maintains diplomatic ties with Taipei instead of Beijing, and Beijing-Vatican relations have become strained in recent years after the mainland's officially sanctioned church appointed bishops without papal approval.

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, a former bishop of Hong Kong, argued that Pope Francis should follow former Pope Benedict - now Pope Emeritus after his resignation - in maintaining a stern attitude towards Beijing.

He said he had discussed China with then-Cardinal Bergoglio just two weeks ago at the Vatican, for about five minutes, when they sat together during a farewell session for Benedict attended by worldwide cardinals.

"I told him the current situation [in China] was very difficult, because not only were there no improvements throughout the past few years, [the situation] has moved backward.

"He listened to me patiently," Zen said, but added that Bergoglio did not respond specifically on the issue of China.

I told him the current situation [in China] was very difficult, because not only were there no improvements throughout the past few years, [the situation] has moved backward. He listened to me patiently
Former bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun


Hong Kong Catholic Diocese Vicar General Michael Yeung Ming-cheung suggested the pope's choice of name was an obvious signal of "extending hands of friendship" to Beijing, because he believed it referred to the mission to East Asia led by St Francis Xavier in the 16th century.

St Francis Xavier was a co-founder of the Jesuits, or Society of Jesus, and was one of the first evangelists to preach Catholicism in East Asia. He died in 1552 on Shangchuan Island, off the coast of Guangdong. One of his bones is kept as a relic in Macau.

Yeung said Pope Francis had made no high-profile statements publicly about his views on the mainland, but added: "As a bridge, you cannot have just one end ... it takes two to tango. The Vatican is always willing to have dialogue with the China government. But it seems China is not very eager in doing so."

Zen too said the onus was with Beijing to create favourable conditions, including granting freedom of religion and freeing jailed ecclesiastics.

"Every pope is sincere, but is the Chinese government? A concession would require both sides [to act]," Zen said

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a press briefing: "We hope the Vatican can create conditions for the improvement of relations and the gradual removal of obstacles."

On the mainland, bishops from the state-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association congratulated the pope and expressed confidence that conflicts could be resolved.

Bishop John Fang Xingyao , chairman of the association, said he hoped the new pontiff could "turn over a new leaf" in China-Vatican relations.

"Given that God has chosen the new pope as a leader, I'm sure he would grant him the ability to build better relations," said Fang.

Fang, who is recognised by both the Vatican and Beijing, was chosen by Beijing in 2010 as chairman of the association - a body denounced by the Holy See in 2007 as being incompatible with church doctrine.

Bishop Zhan Silu of Mindong diocese in Fujian , who is not recognised by the Holy See, said his church would celebrate a Mass for the new pope. "He took the name Francis - this shows he wants to revive and lead the church," Zhan said.

Beijing and the Vatican severed diplomatic ties in 1951 after the latter recognised the Nationalist government in Taipei. The mainland permits worship only in its state-sanctioned church, which has 5.7 million members. Other Chinese Catholics, estimated at three to six million, worship in underground churches.

In Taiwan, President Ma Ying-jeou said he believed Taipei's relations with the Vatican would continue to deepen.

He said the Nationalist government was "honoured to be its partner in peace".