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Religion in China

Beijing has made ‘relentless efforts’ to improve ties with Vatican

Foreign ministry says communication has been ‘smooth and effective’ after report that accord on appointment of bishops could be signed in a few months

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 February, 2018, 5:35pm
UPDATED : Friday, 02 February, 2018, 11:21pm

Beijing on Friday said it has made “relentless efforts” to improve ties with the Vatican, following a report that the two sides could sign a deal on the appointment of bishops within months.

China’s foreign ministry said in a statement that communication between the two sides had been “smooth and effective”.

“China has been sincere in improving its ties with the Vatican, and has made relentless efforts on this,” it said.

“We are willing to make use of the relevant principles to continue conducting constructive dialogue with the Vatican, in order to press ahead with improvements in our relations.”

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The statement was issued after Reuters quoted senior Vatican sources as saying that a framework accord between the two sides was ready and could be signed in a few months. Under the deal, the Vatican will have a say in negotiations over the appointment of bishops.

Earlier this week, retired Hong Kong cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun opened up on a recent trip to the Vatican, where he delivered a letter to Pope Francis and had a 30-minute meeting with the pontiff to express his worries about the Chinese government’s suppression of Catholics.

Zen wrote of his concern over the Vatican asking two Chinese bishops, Peter Zhuang Jianjian and Joseph Guo Xijin, to make way for two bishops preferred by Beijing.

During the meeting, Zen asked the Pope if he had time to “look into the matter” of Bishop Zhuang. He said the pontiff replied: “I told [my colleagues in the Holy See] not to create another Mindszenty case.”

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Cardinal Josef Mindszenty was the archbishop of Budapest and cardinal primate of Hungary. He was persecuted for his opposition to fascism and communism in Hungary from the late 1910s to the 1940s and eventually jailed. He was also known for criticising the Vatican’s attempts to deal with the Hungarian communist regime.

Beijing broke ties with the Vatican in 1951. Since then, the Communist Party has closed churches and imprisoned priests. Catholics may legally practise their religion only in state-sanctioned churches, which are not overseen by the Vatican and have bishops that are appointed by Beijing rather than the Pope.

Liu Guopeng, a religion studies expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the foreign ministry response indicated that Beijing had landed an agreement, probably on the ordination of bishops, that it was satisified with.

“If it turns out to be true, Beijing will be clearing the biggest obstacle in the way of formally establishing ties between China and the Vatican,” Liu said, adding that the comments reflected Beijing’s desire to further isolate Taiwan. The Vatican is the only European state that maintains formal diplomatic relations with the self-ruled island.

A priest from an underground Catholic church on the mainland said an accord between the Vatican and Beijing would be unacceptable for Catholics in China.

“It breaks our hearts to see loyal and steadfast bishops being replaced by excommunicated and illicit ones – it’s just too hard to accept,” said the priest, who requested anonymity. He was referring to Huang Bingzhang, who was excommunicated by the Holy See in 2011 after he was consecrated without approval, and is also a member of China’s parliament. He will reportedly replace Zhuang.