Beijing says it is committed to resuming ties with the Vatican

China reiterates adherence to religious freedom despite stalemate on Holy See deal

Catholic clergy arrive in a procession for Mass on Holy Thursday, ahead of Easter celebrations at Beijing’s government-sanctioned South Cathedral  last week. Photograph: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

Catholic clergy arrive in a procession for Mass on Holy Thursday, ahead of Easter celebrations at Beijing’s government-sanctioned South Cathedral last week. Photograph: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

 

As speculation grows about an imminent deal between the Vatican and Beijing to re-establish relations, Beijing insisted it has made real efforts toward mending ties and was committed to respecting freedom of religious belief.

There has been a flurry of diplomatic activity in recent months, leading late last year to a framework deal that could eventually lead to the resumption of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Beijing.

In order to worship openly in China, Catholics are required to join the official China Patriotic Catholic Association, which has about six million members.

Pope Francis has made no secret of his desire to strike a deal with China since he became pontiff in March 2013, and has said many times that he believes the future of the church is in Asia, where Protestantism is growing swiftly.

However, not everyone is so enthusiastic about the prospect of a deal between the Holy See and Beijing. Cardinal Joseph Zen (86), the outspoken former bishop of Hong Kong, has accused the Vatican of “selling out” to China’s ruling Communist Party.

The deal currently being negotiated allows for the Vatican to have a say in negotiations for the appointment of future bishops, long the sticking point in coming up with a deal. There are 100 Catholic bishops in China, some approved by Beijing, some by the Vatican, and it is informally accepted that many are now approved by both.

‘Foreign forces’

As far as the Communist Party is concerned, allowing the Holy See a say in naming bishops is similar to allowing “foreign forces” to influence China’s domestic affairs.

“From our government’s prospective we have always maintained an honest desire to improve relations and the Chinese government has always made real efforts [towards this],” Chen Zongrong, former deputy head of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, told a news briefing organised by China’s cabinet, the State Council.

“The Chinese constitution clearly states that China’s religious groups and religious affairs cannot be controlled by foreign forces, and [the foreign forces] should not interfere in Chinese religious affairs in any way,” said Mr Chen, who lost his formal position after his administration was dissolved but clearly retains influence in the ongoing negotiations with the Vatican.

There had been expectations of an imminent statement from the Vatican over Easter, possibly during Pope Francis’s Urbi et Orbi speech, that a deal had been reached, but the Holy See eventually said the deal was not to be.

Mr Chen said the channels of communication remained open.

The cabinet has launched a White Paper that gives official data on the number of religious in China. The country has nearly 200 million religious believers and more than 380,000 clerics, and the main religions are Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism.

Official data gives the figures for Catholicism and Protestantism as six million and 38 million followers in China, respectively.

There are estimated to be another six million “underground Catholics” linked to technically illegal “underground” churches, who are overwhelmingly loyal to the Vatican.