In 2019, it’s time for the Vatican and communist bloc of China, Vietnam and North Korea to make up for good
- Billy Huang says strides made in recent days in the church’s relations with China, Vietnam and North Korea can only be good news for the church faithful. With the Pope a relentless critic of Western capitalism, now’s a good time to mend the rift
Despite the New Year vibes everywhere, no major progress has been made on the big issues affecting regional security and people’s lives: the US-China trade war, with a showdown around the corner; the escalating tension between Canada and China over the arrests of a Chinese hi-tech company executive and two Canadians, one of them a former diplomat; and Kim Jong-un’s return to ground zero with a New Year message that there will be no nuclear-free North Korea unless the US makes a security promise.
The list could go on, and be so long as to cloud the world’s expectations for 2019. However, there is a glimmer of hope. It came from the Vatican.
Pope Francis is seriously considering a visit to North Korea. “I can go,” he told South Korean President Moon Jae-in in October, after Moon relayed an invitation from Kim, who said he would “ardently” welcome the Pope to his country.
Actually, it seems the Pope is not only interested in a trip to North Korea in 2019. He wants to engage with the three communist countries which have not set up formal diplomatic relations with the Holy See.
In September, the Pope signed off on a historic “provisional agreement” with Beijing over the appointment of bishops in China. The agreement is groundbreaking and widely expected to help the 67 million Christians in China have a chance to worship legally, with less harassment and interference from the atheist government.
As for Vietnam, it has agreed to upgrade diplomatic relations with the Vatican with a permanent papal representative “in the near future”, according to a Vatican statement released on December 20. It took 10 years to make such progress, after Pope Benedict XVI met privately in the Vatican with Vietnamese president Nguyen Minh Triet in 2009.
The progress made with these three communist countries is significant. However, each still paints a grim picture where religious freedom is concerned. In the 2018 report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, China, North Korea and Vietnam were all included in the list of Tier 1 countries, or countries of “particular concern”.
The situation in China is especially challenging for the following reasons: no visit by the Pope to China is possible in the foreseeable future; no state leaders have ever met the Pope since the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949; the authorities raided house churches in Chengdu and detained 100 Christians last month; and, the celebration of Christmas was banned in at least four Chinese cities this year, in the name of protecting Chinese culture.
What the communists fear most is the Vatican’s legacy: its consistent efforts in the late 20th century to bring down communism. Pope John Paul II, along with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, played key roles in the disintegration of the Soviet Union, thus putting an end to the cold war.
But that does not mean the Vatican has always been a political ally of the West. In fact, in recent years, it has a new enemy in its sights: modern capitalism.
In his New Year message in 2013, Pope Benedict said unfettered capitalism, with its pursuit of maximum profit and competition at all costs, has failed to meet the basic needs of the weaker members of society. “It is alarming to see hotbeds of tension and conflict caused by growing instances of inequality between rich and poor, by the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mentality which also finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism,” he said.
Since then, the Vatican, now headed by Pope Francis, has frequently lashed out at capitalism. On a trip to Bolivia in 2015, the Pope called the excessive pursuit of money “the dung of the devil”, and said developed countries should stop exploiting poor countries by using them merely as “providers of raw material and cheap labour”.
Pope Francis’s concern for social justice has led him to speak out relentlessly against Wall Street. Last November, in an interview with conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, filmmaker Michael Moore revealed details about a conversation he had with the Pope. Moore said Pope Francis agreed with him that “capitalism is a sin” and that “the poor should come first”. The director, who is known for his works excoriating capitalism and globalisation, said the Pope encouraged him to “make more movies”.
It is said that the enemies of my enemies are my friends. Thus, China, Vietnam and North Korea should make bolder moves to welcome Christianity into their society; it would be in their interests.
“Don’t be afraid,” a newly elected Pope John Paul II said on October 22, 1978, to thousands of people in St Peter’s Square. The people from communist regimes, especially those from Pope’s homeland of Poland, knew he was talking to them. The leaders of the remaining communist bloc should hear the same.
The Pope has a plan to visit Japan in 2019 and it is reportedly possible to include North Korea in the itinerary. Why not also China?
The New Year bell is ringing. After a shot of whiskey, mao-tai, sake and soju, I even have a vision of Pope Francis kissing the ground of Beijing Capital International Airport in 2019. Let’s pray.
Billy Huang is a media veteran who served leading media outlets in Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore and America for more than 20 years. [email protected]