Pope Francis and Xi Jinping came to power at the same time – March 13 and March 14, 2013, respectively.
In every year of Pope Francis’ pontificate, China is identified as a government which has “engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom” defined as “including torture, degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges, abduction or clandestine detention, or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons,” according to the U.S. State Department’s annual Religious Freedom report.
A case against China, filed in 2013 with an international tribunal, was settled on July 12. “The ruling paints a picture of an environmentally destructive, dangerously aggressive government that has no legal jurisdiction for its actions.”
“In the Chinese imagination, this is not subjugation of neighbors but simply restoration of the normal order … a return to the traditional concept of tianxia, with barbarians benefiting from Chinese civilization.”
Pope Francis told Xi Jinping, “The world looks to this great wisdom of yours.” He repeats that “the world looks to China’s wisdom and civilization,” in a February 2016 interview. The pope also “described the excitement he felt when he was about to enter Chinese airspace on the flight from Seoul to Rome in August 2014.”
During that in-flight news conference, the pope said, “I think of the great Chinese sages, theirs is a history of knowledge, of wisdom” and that he wanted to go to China “Tomorrow! Oh, yes!”
The next month, Pope Francis issued an invitation to Xi to come to the Vatican and said he was willing to go to China.
Pope Francis rejected a meeting requested by the Dalai Lama in December 2014 because Vatican negotiations with China were in a “delicate” phase. “China describes the Dalai Lama as a separatist and reacts angrily when foreign dignitaries meet him.”
Afterwards the pope repeated: “[The Chinese] know I’m available either to receive someone, or to go to China. They know.”
When the pope was in the U.S. in September 2015, he and Xi were in New York the same day. “The pope wanted to meet Xi and this message was communicated clearly to China.”
It was announced on August 5, 2016, that after more than two years of negotiations, the Vatican and Beijing reached a preliminary agreement whereby a government-controlled organization would prepare a list of candidates for bishop and the pope would choose from among them. No other civil government in the world has been granted this authority.
The pope has not been invited to China. He has not met Xi Jinping. He has never mentioned China’s aggression, “egregious violations” of religious freedom or any other human right for the Chinese. Beijing has made no concessions.
Two Catholic Churches
All religion was outlawed when the Communist Party took control of China in 1949 but was not eliminated. So the government decided to accommodate five religions – Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism – by putting them under control of the Communist Party. The Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) was established but an underground Church remained loyal to the pope.
Anyone professing a religion, however, is still barred from a government position and subject to persecution, torture, imprisonment and death.
Both groups of Catholics have their own bishops. Those in the CPCA have been appointed by the government; those in the underground Church have been appointed by the pope. Until now, both the Vatican and China have maintained their sole right to appoint (ordain) bishops. No pope up to now has ever recognized the CPCA as a legitimate form of Catholicism.
China has demanded that the Vatican cut off diplomatic ties with Taiwan before officially opening diplomatic channels with the Holy See. Taiwan has its own democratically elected government but mainland China considers it a province.
Pope Benedict XVI’s desire for some rapprochement seemed to bear fruit during China’s PR campaign in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics to appear more moderate and open to Western ideals. Benedict urged leaders in the underground Church and the CPCA towards dialogue and joint-liturgies. He even instructed the Jesuits to prepare for new missionary efforts in China. Any hope for a reciprocal conciliatory gesture from Beijing ended with the Olympics.*
The Chinese government suggested in 2010 what would later be referred to as the “China model,” i.e. they select the nominees for episcopal appointment and the pope could choose from among them. In the next two years, more CPCA bishops were ordained without the pope’s consent. Benedict’s response was to declare that the illegitimately ordained bishops had been automatically excommunicated.
Pope Francis’ Pontificate – 2014
Pope Francis attended the Aug. 17 Asian Youth Day in South Korea. “This must be reported because it reflects the hard reality of Catholic life in China today.” Fifty five Chinese were prevented from attending “by various forms of ‘persuasion’ or were blocked at the airport … These young mainlanders risked careers, peace and security to be with the pope … Pope Francis knew all this when he spoke about China on the flight back from Korea.”
A CPCA official responded to the pope’s praise and eagerness to go to China by warning him that “China never allows foreign forces to interfere with religion.”
In November, China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs repeated the 2010 terms for an acceptable agreement – the government selects episcopal candidates and the pope chooses among them – “adding that a response is expected in early 2015.”
During 2014, “at least 100 people have been arrested, detained or summoned and 35 people injured, mostly while trying to protect churches from baton-wielding police.” Communist Party cadres, “ordered to achieve results against religion within a year,” had destroyed dozens of churches and more than 400 crosses were removed.
On Dec. 12, 2014, Pope Francis rejected a request for a meeting with “the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, because of the ‘delicate situation’ with China, the Vatican says.” Even a pro-Vatican publication noted the decision was made because “the Holy See’s relationship with the Chinese government is currently going through a very delicate – a crucial in fact – phase.”
“I am deeply saddened and distressed that the Holy Father, Pope Francis, should give in to these pressures and decline to meet the Dalai Lama,’” South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu said.
On Dec. 15, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said that China “noticed” the pope’s decision not to receive the Dalai Lama and that “China will continue to hold constructive dialogue with the Holy See.”
China has been waging a “calculated and systematic strategy aimed at the destruction of Tibet’s national and cultural identities,” often personified by their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. The pope’s decision was a victory for China. “[T]he attention of public opinion in the West to the Dalai Lama is going down by the day,” a Chinese official said on Dec. 19.
On Dec. 26, China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs issued its 2015 working plan. “China will continue its practice of electing and ordaining bishops independent of the Holy See.” Furthermore, “the administration would monitor all religious personnel serving in Church venues and would instruct religious venues and seminaries to open their individual bank accounts.”
“Repression in China has worsened since Xi Jinping became president in 2013” according to a Jan. 13, 2015, report by the Freedom House. There have been “harsher policies towards minorities including Tibetans, Christians and Uyghurs.”
During a Jan. 19 in-flight press conference, Pope Francis was asked: “Can you explain why you didn’t receive the Dalai Lama when he was in Rome a little while ago, and where do relations with China stand?” The pope responded: “It’s a habit in the protocol of the Secretariat of State not to receive heads of state and people at that level when they’re taking part in an international meeting here in Rome … That’s the reason he wasn’t received. I saw that some newspapers said I didn’t receive him out of fear of China. That’s not true.” The pope also said, “How do the relations with China stand? [T]hey know I’m available either to receive someone, or to go to China. They know.”
Although the statement that the Dalai Lama was refused an audience due to “delicate” negotiations with China was made by the Vatican, technically the pope was correct at the time about not meeting “people at that level” who were attending international meetings in Rome. The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu had been in Rome to attend the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates, an honor denied the pope despite a campaign launched by Argentinian leaders. Later, Pope Francis did meet with the presidents of the European Parliament, Commission and Council who were attending an international meeting in Rome. But that group gave him a prize “for work done in the service of European unification.”
China warned the U.S. on Feb. 2, 2015, that it was “opposed to any country meeting the Dalai Lama in any manner” after the White House announced that Obama would deliver remarks at a Feb. 5 prayer breakfast that the Dalai Lama was due to attend. During the event, the president said, “I want to offer a special welcome to a good friend, His Holiness the Dalai Lama [w]ho inspires us to speak up for the freedom and dignity of all human beings.”
2015: Persecutions and negotiations
Between April and July 2015, authorities closed or raided more than a dozen Protestant churches and schools and 20 house churches were forced to close. One pastor believed the central government wants the underground Christian denominations under its own “Chinese style” Church approved by the Communist Party.
May 21: Xi reiterated the leadership role of the Communist Party in religious matters, warning against foreign forces. “His targets included Xinjiang Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists and the Vatican.”
May 27: A priest of the underground Catholic Church was arrested and still remains missing. Bishop Julius Jia Zhigu, who has a history of arrests and releases, was held and released without explanation. “Xi Jinping’s recent statement on religions has boosted extremist views among local authorities who now feel entitled to attack,” according to a source who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
Aug. 4: The Vatican accepted the ordination of Bishop Joseph Zhang Yinlin who was chosen by Beijing. The action came amid “wide protests among both Protestants and Catholics” at the government’s efforts “to rein in Christianity’s influence … As of August 2015, at least three Catholic bishops and six priests of the underground Church remain in Chinese prisons, one since 1997. [M]ore than 1,000 Protestants in the country are being detained for unauthorized religious activity and have been given prison sentences in excess of a year.”
Sept. 28: In spite of his unsuccessful attempt to meet with Xi Jinping in New York, during the flight from the U.S. to Rome, Pope Francis said, “[F]or me, having a friend of a great country like China, which has so much culture and has so much opportunity to do good, would be a joy.”
Oct. 11: A Vatican delegation flew to Beijing for a meeting “amid a crackdown on religion in China,” and after an Oct. 8 article in the state newspaper pronounced that all religious affairs in China should be handled by the Chinese and there was no need for foreign involvement.
In an interview published while the Vatican delegation was in China, Pope Francis declared, “China is always in my heart!” His Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, told journalists “everything we do, we do with a view … to establish normal relations with China.”
The Vatican delegation “did not discuss sensitive issues” like the continued detention of Catholics noted Hong Kong Bishop Emeritus, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun. Zen considered the delegation’s visit to a CPCA bishop and its seminary as “acts of homage imposed by Beijing.”
During the talks, Beijing proposed the “China model,” with added caveats. The pope “has a weak veto only in ‘severe’ cases, which must be justified if used.” If the pope’s “justifications are considered ‘insufficient,’ the [government’s] Council of Bishops may decide to proceed anyway.”
Beijing also demanded the Vatican’s recognition of illegitimate and excommunicated bishops. “Beijing has no intention of negotiating, only making demands,” Zen noted.
2016: Persecutions and Negotiations Accelerate
In late January, two Protestant pastors were arrested and held in a “black jail” (without access to legal representation) after criticizing Communist Party persecution. In one case, the government replaced the leadership of his church. In the other, the pastor’s wife was also arrested.
Also in late January, a Chinese delegation visited the Vatican.
Pope Francis’ (in)famous greeting to Xi Jinping – “The world looks to this great wisdom of yours” – was published on Feb. 2. “The Catholic Church, I would say, has the duty to respect [Chinese civilization] with a capital ‘R,’” the pope noted.
An official in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs stated that the Chinese government “has taken note” of the papal interview. “We hope that the Vatican can take a flexible, pragmatic attitude to creating conditions for improving ties,” he added.
Also in February, a pastor, his wife and son received prison sentences up to 14 years. They had been arrested in Aug. 2015 after the pastor had protested against the removal of their church cross. The same month, authorities detained 16 more pastors who had also protested.
Feb. 25: A Christian attorney appeared on state-run television in what appeared to be a coerced confession. Arrested six months earlier shortly before he was to meet with U.S. State Department officials about religious freedom violations in China, he appeared underweight and hunched over. He admitted that he had broken Chinese law, disrupted social order and endangered state security. “The government has also brought formal charges against nearly 20 human rights lawyers who had worked against the church demolitions and authorities have broadcast coerced ‘confessions’ from several of them.”
Feb. 25: “Beijing is clearly taking yet another major step to control religion as President Xi Jinping’s rule becomes ever more regimented and intolerant of perceived threats,” according to a report. “Beijing has started to assign certificates detailing the secular name, religious name, national ID card number and a new, unique faith number to Buddhist monks.” Catholic and Taoist priests, Protestant and Islamic clergy “will surely face orders to follow suit in the near future. Those religious personnel without certificates will be barred from engaging in religious activities, according to the State Administration for Religious Affairs … The Chinese Communist Party is restricting, harassing, torturing and in some cases even killing members of these religious groups … By its very nature, the party simply doesn’t consider views counter to its own, and its knee-jerk reaction is always to use force. ”
Feb. 27: An editorial published “with great prominence” by a government publication sees “a sign of an ‘acceleration’ concerning relations with the Holy See.” The editorial also suggested the “Chinese model” of episcopal selection.
March 19: The Vatican announced that its diplomatic representative to Taiwan had been reassigned. “This could mean that the Holy See wants to leave the post vacant while in the process of normalizing relations with People’s Republic of China.”
Underground Bishop Thomas Zeng Jingmu was harassed by authorities right up to his April 2 death. Officials instructed Catholic leaders not to attend his April 6 funeral. The 5,000 mourners attending the funeral were surrounded by 1,000 officials with the state security apparatus.
April 4: A Chinese priest, already detained “many times,” said, “Rome may betray us, but I won’t join a Church which is controlled by the Communist Party … I will resign.” Another member of the underground Church declared, “If the independent church is no longer allowed, I will just go home and pray … There is only one road for us Catholics.” The director of ChinaAid regretted that any capitulation by the pope would “be like a father’s betrayal of his own children … because the move will legitimize the Communist Party’s persecution, past, present and perhaps future.”
April 20: Three underground priests have disappeared.
April 23: At a Beijing conference attended by top leaders, Xi Jinping said that religious groups must submit to the leadership of the Communist Party. “Veteran China-watchers say such comments from senior government officials often signal a new cycle of harassment and vigilance.” Xi’s comments “follow a tightening of religious space that has seen bans on the wearing of veils and beards in the predominantly Muslim region of Xinjiang.”
“A breakthrough came in April” when the Vatican and the Chinese agreed to set up a working group which met in May. The group “has been charged with hammering out technical solutions over the ordination of bishops” and “how to resolve the issue” of eight excommunicated bishops.
May 4: Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin, said he hoped that “the blossom [of relations with China] will flourish and bear good fruits for the good of the same China and of all the world.”
May 27: “China is planning to send submarines armed with nuclear missiles to the Pacific Ocean for the first time.”
June 11: “[T]he Vatican is reportedly willing to accept new bishop candidates [who have] the approval of the Chinese government.”
June 12: Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin, who spent four years under house arrest for quitting the CPCA on the day of his ordination, “confessed” his errors. After his rejection of the CPCA, he was stripped of his title and forced to undergo communist indoctrination classes. Ma’s priests and nuns were also forced to attend “reeducation classes.” The Vatican “has never morally backed Bishop Ma Daqin even though he sent many messages to the pope. [H]e only got an embarrassing silence.” The Holy See remained silent on Ma’s about face. “Some suspect the Vatican views the episode in positive terms … Many Catholics and friends of the bishop believe he was forced to write that article.” Currently, Ma “remains under a sort of house arrest, and is subject to monitoring by security services.”
June 30: Hong Kong Bishop Emeritus, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, addressed his blog to mainland Catholics: “[I]f your conscience tells you that the content of whatever agreement [between the pope and China] goes against the principle of our faith, you should not go with it.”
July 10: “Efforts to increase the influence of the Communist Party are clear in a campaign thought to be aimed at the Catholic Church even as talks with the Vatican continue about a historic deal over the appointment of bishops”
July 12: A ruling by an international tribunal against China “essentially squashes any justification China might have had for harassing ships, blocking Filipino fishermen or interfering with other nations’ attempts to explore for oil off their coasts. Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia have also taken exception to China’s growing presence in the region … Beijing has long maintained that it will ignore today’s ruling. Indeed it resorted to insulting the tribunal with state-controlled media.”
July 14: “The pope is preparing to pardon eight bishops ordained by the CPCA and officially excommunicated … The Vatican hopes a pardon would be interpreted by China as a goodwill gesture.”
Aug. 5: Current Bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal John Tong Hon, announced that under a preliminary agreement the Vatican has accepted the “Chinese model” of episcopal appointments.
Cardinal Zen responded on Aug. 4 to the “likelihood” of an “unacceptable agreement” over appointment of bishops.
“Today a specter appears on the horizon, of a statement coming right from the authority of the Church, that tells [Catholics] to change course. What was declared as opposed to the doctrine and discipline of the Church will become legitimate and normal; everyone will have to submit to the government that manages the Church; everyone will have to obey bishops who until today are illegitimate and even excommunicated …
I am the voice of the voiceless not only to protest against the Communist Authorities, but also to put certain questions to our Roman Authorities …
Can a religion submit itself to the complete control of an atheist government?
We must face the fact that the communist government is a true dictatorship! In dictatorship regime there is no compromise, there is only total submission, slavery and humiliation. The Chinese communists, after they have killed hundreds of thousands, maybe they don’t need to kill so many nowadays. But the “state of violence” reigns, total denial of most basic human rights.
Who doesn’t know that today Chinese communists are ever more arrogant abroad and oppressive at home? …
How can you reasonably hope in the success of the dialogue? Will the Chinese communists give up a little of the complete control of the official community of Catholics they firmly hold in their hands? In case the dialogue fails, they lose nothing. But they come willingly to the dialogue hoping to bring home a signature, the final blessing of the Popes on the present abnormal state of that Church, which, objectively, is already schismatic.
Ostpolitik is about politics; in that field it makes sense, because here there is the possibility of some bargaining, trading economic gain for political concessions. But what do we have to bargain with those who only understand reasons of money and power? Can we sell the only thing we have: the spiritual power?
[Rome asserts] “We assured the ecclesiastical hierarchy!” But what hierarchy? Puppet bishops, not shepherds of the flock but ravening wolves, officers of the atheist Governments! “We found a modus non moriendi!” The Churches [behind the Iron Curtain] have not been saved through Vatican diplomacy but thanks to the unswerving faith of the simple faithful!
April 5 op-ed by the British Catholic Herald: “[A] compromise with the Chinese government whereby they propose bishops which the Vatican then approves would be a huge defeat for the autonomy of the Church and for religious liberty, quite apart from throwing the faithful Catholics of China under the bus … Does the Vatican seriously believe that the Communist party is suddenly going to stop persecuting Christians? … In gaining diplomatic relations, which may be purely cosmetic, it may sacrifice a great deal, including its own moral credibility.”
Aug. 10: “60 Chinese Christian migrants from 10 different denominations, all fearing persecution back home, have applied for political asylum in the Czech Republic … Several Catholic priests and religious, as well as scores of Protestant pastors and lay believers from all denominations, are either in detention or have been released only on the condition that they play ball.”
Aug. 15: “President Xi Jinping said that religious groups must submit to the leadership of the Communist Party … The country’s new law regulating foreign NGOs makes China’s climate profoundly less friendly to non-Chinese religious organizations [and] some foreign Christian groups have been expelled.” There has also been “major restrictions on Islamist religious activity … the central government has reasserted control over Buddhist practices in Tibet [and] the Chinese government began demolishing parts of the world’s largest Buddhist institute in July.”
Aug. 24: Parolin gave “watertight confirmation of the important step in the dialogue between Beijing and the Holy See.” Parolin said the primary aim is “to make the lives of Catholic faithful in China simpler and foster reconciliation between the so-called ‘official’ and ‘clandestine’ communities. The claim that there are two different Churches in China does not correspond to historical reality,” Parolin stated.
Aug. 26: Pope Francis announced his intentions for the 50th World Day of Peace to be celebrated on Jan. 1, 2017, as if he couldn’t wait. He included “recognition of the primacy of diplomacy,” acting “within what is possible,” and having “a realistic political method.”
Aug. 27: Parolin gave a speech: “Today, many are the hopes and expectations for new developments and a new season in relations between the Apostolic See and China, to the benefit not only of Catholics in the land of Confucius but of the whole country, which boasts one of the greatest civilizations on the planet. I would dare to say that this will also be to the benefit of an orderly, peaceful, and fruitful coexistence of peoples and nations in the world … This is a matter of writing a page unheard of in history.”
Aug. 29: A newspaper linked to the Beijing government:
Obstacles remain in the way of diplomatic ties between China and the Vatican, experts say, as the Vatican expressed its hope [Aug. 27] of establishing formal relations with China … China, however, is not eager to establish formal ties with the Vatican, the only European country that has not established such relations with China, because it is not an urgent issue which will affect China’s international status if it is not dealt with immediately.
[F]ormal Sino-Vatican ties could materialize if the Vatican cuts off official ties with Taiwan …
Another major dispute between China and the Vatican involves the appointment of bishops … The Vatican expressed its deep regret to China after the latter consecrated several bishops in 2010 without its approval, saying that it was a “painful wound upon ecclesial communion and a grave violation of Catholic discipline.” The situation improved when Zhang Yinlin became the first bishop recognized by both Beijing and the Holy See in August 2015.”
Aug. 29: During the daily press conference held by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the spokesperson was asked to comment on Parolin’s Aug. 27 speech. “China is always sincere about improving its relations with Vatican, and has made relentless efforts to this end. The current channel of dialogue and contact between the two sides runs well and effectively. Following certain principles, we would like to work together with the Vatican side for constructive dialogues, meet each other half way and strive for the continuous development of bilateral relations.”
Pope Francis wants to be a player in international geopolitics as a “moral authority.” Parolin is reportedly considering creating an “Office for Papal Mediation” for that purpose. An accord with China would be “writing a page unheard of in history” and bolster the pope’s diplomatic credentials.
Frank Ching, a prominent commentator specializing in Chinese affairs, “warned there is nothing remotely peaceful about Beijing’s rise to power … Since the international ruling on the South China Sea in July China has notably stepped up its presence in the disputed zone.”
Yet Pope Francis and his Secretary of State have said that their dialogue with China will bring “a more fraternal world society and with a greater level of social equity,” “is the only way to achieve peace,” can be an “example for the world as a whole, building bridges of fraternity and communion everywhere,” would have “immense benefits for world peace, very, very big benefits,” and that “the blossom [of relations with China] will flourish and bear good fruits for the good of the same China and of all the world.”
Pope Francis even went so far as to admonish other governments that “fear of the rise in China’s economic and geopolitical influence ‘is not a good counselor.’”
Frank Ching: “In its imagined world, the realization of Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream will place China once again at the center of the world, after a couple of centuries of being disrupted by Western imperialism.”
And so, Parolin’s Aug. 27 speech included “spanning almost two centuries during which the imperialist and colonialist policies of Western powers stood in the way of Holy See-China relations, with their connivance, pressure and blackmail, hindering the entire apostolic and missionary activity of the Catholic Church in China.”
Pope Francis said he places his faith “in a China that can make an increasingly important contribution to the consolidation of peace balances,” compared to “what happened in Yalta and we saw the results. [C]arving up the cake, as in Yalta, means dividing humanity and culture into small pieces.” The pope was referring to the 1945 conference where Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin met to discuss ending the war and making plans for a post-war world.
It might be better for the Chinese people and “peace balances” if the pope also studied the 1938 Munich Pact signed by Hitler, Mussolini, French Premier Daladier and British Prime Minister Chamberlain which handed Czechoslovakia over to Germany. Chamberlain declared that the meeting had achieved “peace in our time.”
P.S. The Dalai Lama is the most admired religious figure in the world.
*see Chap. 15 of my book, The NeoCatholics: Implementing Christian Nationalism in America
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