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“Provisional Agreement” between the Vatican and China on the appointment of bishops

Presented as imminent for two years, the “tentative agreement” on the appointment of bishops is the result of negotiations that have been going on for years.

The Vatican announced in a statement on Saturday, September 22, the signing in Beijing of a “tentative agreement” with the People’s Republic of China “on the appointment of bishops.” Several times presented as imminent for two years, this announcement is the result of negotiations that have lasted for several years between the Holy See and Beijing.

Pope Francis meets a group of Chinese Catholics on April 18, 2018 at the Vatican.

For the Vatican, the agreement aims to remedy the division of Chinese Catholics between an official Church tightly controlled by Chinese power, including seven of the bishops are not recognized by Rome, and an “underground” Church, whose thirty bishops do not are not recognized by Beijing. In recent years, the Holy See’s policy has been to promote the unity of these “official” and “clandestine” communities. But it does not go without causing criticism in certain sectors of the Church, who fear that Catholics loyal to Rome in the greatest difficulties will pay the price.

The Vatican communique says that this “provisional agreement” was signed for the Holy See by the undersecretary for relations with the states, Mgr Antoine Camilleri, and, for Beijing, by Wang Chao, deputy minister of affairs. Foreign. The provisional nature, it is stated, suggests “the possibility of a periodic review of its application”. Nevertheless, the Holy See affirms, “it creates the conditions for a better bilateral collaboration”. “The shared hope is that the agreement can foster a fruitful and forward-looking process of institutional dialogue and contribute positively to the life of the Catholic Church in China, the common good of the Chinese people and peace in the world. the world. ”

“This is not the end of a process, it’s the beginning,” said Greg Burke, spokesman for the Vatican press room. Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin (No. 2) explained that in this agreement, “the Holy See’s goal is pastoral, that is, to help local churches to that they enjoy a situation of greater freedom, greater autonomy, the possibility of a better organization and thus they are dedicated to the proclamation of the Gospel “.

For the signatories, this is a first step, dealing only with the appointment of bishops. These crystallize the tensions between the two signatories. For the Holy See, which does not maintain diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China since the expulsion of the Nuncio, in 1951, and the transfer of the embassy to Taipei (the Vatican is one of the last states to maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan), the choice of bishops by the pope is the condition for the exercise of religious freedom. For Beijing, allowing an external authority to appoint supreme leaders is inconceivable.

Politics of “Sinisation” of Religions

Since 1957, China has maintained a “Catholic Patriotic Association” which appoints bishops and does not recognize the authority of Rome. Since 2010, the official Church has appointed seven bishops not recognized by the Vatican, and Rome about thirty bishops not recognized by Beijing. But some of the bishops appointed by the official Church have secretly asked for and obtained the Rome agreement. Two churches therefore for a community estimated at ten million believers.

On Saturday, early in the afternoon, a second Vatican statement announced that “in order to support the proclamation of the Gospel in China,” Pope Francis had “decided to readmit into ecclesial communion”; to recognize, the seven “official” bishops ordained without his consent.

From the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has multiplied the signs of good disposition towards the Chinese power. Elected a day before Xi Jinping in March 2013, he wrote to the Chinese leader three days later. A first meeting between a Chinese delegation and representatives of the Holy See was held in Rome in June 2014. It was followed by several others, alternately in the Vatican and Beijing. Pope Francis has repeatedly expressed his desire to visit China one day. After three years without ordination, on August 4, 2015, the first ordination of Francis’s pontificate, Joseph Zhang Yilin, was held in Anyang, Henan, chosen by Beijing and approved by Rome (but without official Vatican communication). The three bishops who presided at his ordination had themselves been recognized by the Vatican.

But at the same time, the pressure of Chinese power on Catholic communities has grown steadily under the influence of the so-called policy of “sinisation” of religions. If the communist regime carries out a ruthless repression against the Uighurs, Muslims settled for centuries in Xinjiang, up to lock up nearly a million in recovery camps, according to several estimates, it also attacks other cults. The “sinification” of religions revived in 2016 resulted in the closure or destruction of many Catholic and Protestant places of worship, the destruction of thousands of crosses and Bibles and the persecution of a number of ecclesiastical, even faithful.

“A perilous Chinese dream”

Even before being concluded, the agreement between the Vatican and Beijing was commented in the Chinese press. In an editorial, the nationalist daily, the Global Times, welcomed from September 19 the agreement in sight. “If it materializes, the agreement will be a substantial step forward in China-Vatican relations. This is a good thing not only for the Catholic Churches in China but also for the development of Catholicism, “the paper wrote.

In the same newspaper, Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, Argentine bishop and current Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Saturday described as “noisy minority” opponents of the agreement. “According to our interpretation, critics are a small minority of people, people who wanted to create unrest,” said this close to Pope Francis, who, according to the newspaper, was in recent days in Shaanxi Province to participate in a international symposium on organ transplants. One of the most opposed to an agreement is the emeritus bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun. According to him, an agreement between Rome and Beijing would necessarily be at the expense of the underground church.

On the other hand, the Italian writer Ilaria Maria Sala recalls in the South China Morning Post, the Hong Kong daily, where she lives, that four years ago, when Beijing had authorized the papal plane to fly over China, while the Pope Francis went to Korea, he thanked Xi Jinping and addressed to the Chinese nation “the divine blessing of peace and well-being”. But for the writer, in the current circumstances of religious repression in China, the pope has chosen “a perilous Chinese dream”.

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