Pope told to 'face the facts' of China's religious freedom

Thu, Dec 30, 2010, 00:00

THE VATICAN must “face the facts” about religious freedom in China, the foreign ministry said in the first official reaction to the pope’s Christmas Day Urbi et Orbi message condemning the persecution of Chinese Catholics.

Pope Benedict denounced limits on freedom of worship in China and encouraged Catholics here to persevere.

“We hope the Vatican can face the facts of China’s religious freedom and the development of Catholicism in China and take concrete actions to promote positive conditions for China-Vatican relations,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told a news conference.

An editorial in the English-language edition of the Global Times, run by Communist Party organ the People’s Daily, said the pope had acted “more like a western politician than a religious leader”, but this was the first official commentary from Beijing.

Broadly speaking, relations between Beijing and the Holy See have been poor since the communists kicked foreign clergy out in the 1950s and severed ties with the Vatican.

China’s officially atheist government requires that Christians worship in state-registered churches, and China’s eight to 12 million Catholics are divided into official and unofficial camps.

Catholics are required to join the official Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, set up eight years after the 1949 revolution, which has five million members and which repeatedly angers Rome by naming bishops without the Vatican’s approval.

On the other hand there is an underground church wary of government ties. The Vatican estimates about eight million Chinese Catholics worship secretly in underground churches not recognised by the government.

In recent years, under Pope Benedict, relations have improved and disputes over appointments in China’s official church have been avoided by quietly conferring on candidates, which means that most state-approved bishops have a Vatican blessing.

The policy of appointing religious leaders without consulting with the titular heads of the religion in question is something that the Chinese have also done with the Tibetan Buddhists.

The current Panchen Lama, second in command in the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy, was appointed by the Chinese government after the Panchen Lama named by the Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, was kidnapped.

Negotiations are ongoing to improve the status of the Catholic Church in China, probably by no longer recognising Taiwan diplomatically in favour of Beijing. The Vatican is one of the few countries in the world that gives diplomatic recognition to Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province. This is a key irritant to relations between the Holy See and Beijing.

While relations tend to simmer, they do flare up every so often.

A schism would be hugely difficult for Chinese Catholics, as they would be forced to either ally themselves with the Vatican, and choose underground worship, or tie themselves to the patriotic association, which could involve excommunication.