In September 2018, the Vatican signed a secret deal with the Chinese Communist government.
According to the Holy See Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, the agreement was to normalize religious freedom for the Catholic Church in Communist China. Suspiciously, the Vatican refused to release any specifics and steadfastly guarded the conditions of the deal. The details still remain a secret, but the repercussions of the highly controversial Vatican-China detente do not.
It’s becoming apparent that the Vatican made a deal with the devil and lost.
On April 30, the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) issued its 20th Annual Report on . USCIRF is a federal government commission created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. USCIRF Commissioners are appointed by the president and the leadership of both political parties in the Senate and the House of Representatives. The 226-page report addresses widespread violations of religious freedom around the globe and designates violating countries in tiers, with Tier 1 countries noted as “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC) for violations of religious freedom. Potential sanctions can accompany Tier 1 designations.
This year’s report found and highlighted the disturbing increase in religious freedom violations by the Chinese government. Not surprisingly, China is listed as a Tier 1 country. The Commissioners emphasized in the introduction of the 2019 report that China remains a particularly violent perpetrator against religious freedom. The report found that, of all the countries, “China is in a category all by itself.” The report proclaims the continued surge in religious persecution by the Chinese Communists:
One such saga is currently unfolding in China where the government has been particularly pernicious toward religion and religious believers during the last 20 years—and increasingly so in recent years, including in 2018.
The report forcefully demands that the U.S. government take swift action against Chinese officials. Chinese religious freedom advocates estimate that the Chinese government is detaining up to 3 million religious minorities, including Christians, Muslims, and especially Muslim Uighurs.
The U.S. government—and the international community—must swiftly and resolutely sanction Chinese officials and agencies that have perpetrated or tolerated severe religious freedom violations, including Chen Quanguo, Communist Party Secretary in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and other Politburo Members.
The Vatican is excoriated for its China Deal
One of the key findings in the report on China sadly resonates for Catholics in light of the controversial and recent Vatican religious freedom deal with China. The report specifically condemns the secret Vatican deal with the Chinese government in 2018:
In September, the Vatican reached a provisional agreement with China that would allow the government a role in the appointment of new bishops; nevertheless, repression of the underground Catholic Church increased during the latter half of the year. The government also raided or closed down hundreds of Protestant house churches, including Zion Church, Rongguili Church, and Early Rain Covenant Church. Meanwhile, more than 900 Falun Gong practitioners were arrested during the year simply for practicing their beliefs or distributing literature about the Falun Gong.
In March 2018, jurisdiction over religious affairs was transferred from the government to an organ of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), further eroding the barrier between religion and party.
While the Vatican was urging patience with the Chinese, the Chinese were ramping up the persecution of religious minorities. The ink was not even dry on the Vatican deal when the Chinese began a systematic demolition of churches and the roundup and arrest of Catholics and other Christians.
In the report, the Commissioners expressed deep concern about the persecution of religious minorities in China and highlighted the troubling Vatican-China deal. In fact, one of the Commissioners, Johnnie Moore, issued a pointed addendum statement specifically regarding the Vatican agreement to be included in the 2019 report. Below is Moore’s damning and biting criticism of the Vatican deal:
My personal opinion is that one of the most alarming incidents as it relates to religious freedom in the entire year was the decision by the Vatican to negotiate a diplomatic relationship with China that resulted in the recognition of government appointed bishops and which also—in effect deposed prominent Chinese religious leaders who had persevered through horrific persecution in previous generations in China, including China’s most well-known Catholic leader.
Literally, within days of the Vatican negotiating its deal, the Chinese used it as cover to embark upon the closure of several of the nation’s largest and most prominent unregistered church communities. That has continued. Being that the Vatican is both a Church and a State, it is my opinion that the Vatican now bears a significant moral and legal responsibility to help solve the problem which it helped create—albeit inadvertently—by providing China license to viciously crack down on Christian communities (as cited in this report), and by providing the Chinese government further cover to continue its incomprehensible, inexcusable and inhumane abuses of Muslim citizens in the western part of the country [emphasis added]
While I am entirely for direct engagement on these issues, including with the most severe violators in the world, that engagement must not result in these types of unintended consequences, as has been the case in China. The Vatican made a terrible mistake, which it must take seriously. This debacle must be dealt with urgently and seriously” [emphasis added].
A few weeks before the issuance of the USCIRF report, Cardinal Parolin appeared at a religious freedom symposium at the U.S. Embassy in Rome and weakly defended his failed detente with China. Parolin stated, “Our hope is that it will help, not limit, religious freedom. But we should be patient. I know that people want things immediately.”
Contrary to the Vatican’s naive aspirations, the reality on the ground in China is that the Vatican deal is severely limiting religious freedom for Chinese Catholics. Calling for patience in the face of the ongoing demolition of Churches and brutal detention of Catholics rings hollow and desperate.
This 2019 USCIRF religious freedom assessment provides a thorough and comprehensive analysis of the persecution and conditions of religious minorities in Communist China and addresses the disastrous impact of the Vatican secret deal with the Chinese Communist government. Simply put, the Vatican provided “cover” for the Chinese inhuman abuses.
The report’s conclusion tragically mirrors the statements by the heroic retired Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen. Cardinal Zen pleaded with the Vatican not to negotiate with China for fear of renewed Christian persecutions. Zen’s prophetic plea proved correct according to the religious freedom report.
Zen described the China deal as “an incredible betrayal” and a “complete surrender” for the underground Chinese Catholic Church. As he predicted, persecutions are increasing and the suffering is ongoing at the hands of the Vatican’s negotiation partner, the Chinese Communists.
It is urgent that Catholics around the world, freedom-loving countries, and the United Nations condemn Pope Francis for his foolhardy and horrific deal and demand that the Vatican immediately and entirely withdraw from this agreement that provided China cover to violently crack down on Christians. Nothing less will do.
Contrary to the Vatican’s advice, patience is disastrous. It’s not merciful. The Pope of Mercy should understand.
Elizabeth Yore is the former Special Counsel at Harpo with Oprah Winfrey. She is an international human rights attorney, specializing in child protection — learn more at YoreChildren.com — as well as an advisory board member of Save the Persecuted Christians.