U.S. Commission Urges Vatican to Prioritize Religious Freedom in Deal with China

Chinese Catholics shop for bibles after midnight Christmas mass at a government approved Catholic church in Beijing, 25 December 2007. China's official Catholic church has installed a new Vatican-approved bishop, the third in a month, state media and a Rome-based religious news agency reported on 22 December as up to …
TEH ENG KOON/AFP/Getty

ROME — The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has urged the Vatican to highlight religious liberty in its deliberations with China prior to renewing a 2018 deal on the naming of bishops in the country.

“Communist China continues to persecute Chinese Catholics. USCIRF hopes any future deal between the Vatican & China is rooted in the protection of #religiousfreedom,” the Commission wrote on Twitter this week, citing commissioner Gary Bauer.

Both the Vatican and Beijing have signaled a desire to renew their secret 2018 agreement, which conferred on the Chinese Communist Party an unspecified amount of authority in the selection of Catholic bishops in China.

The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, told journalists Monday that the common intention of China and the Holy See is to renew the agreement, which is due to expire in October.

Numerous reports demonstrate, however, that the situation for Christians in China has worsened considerably since the signing of the Vatican-China deal.

Last January, the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) released its annual report on human rights conditions in China, which found an overall deterioration of religious liberty in China over the year 2019.

“In September 2018, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs signed an agreement with the Holy See, paving the way for the unification of state-sanctioned and underground Catholic communities,” the report stated. “Subsequently, local Chinese authorities subjected Catholic believers in China to increased persecution by demolishing churches, removing crosses, and continuing to detain underground clergy.”

“The Party-led Catholic national religious organizations also published a plan to ‘sinicize’ Catholicism in China,” the report continued, referring to the stated aim of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of obliging all religions to bring their teachings and practices into line with the party.

President Xi Jinping has doubled down on the “sinicization” of religion, the report’s executive summary noted. “Scholars and international rights groups have described religious persecution in China over the last year to be of an intensity not seen since the Cultural Revolution,” it added.

China has intensified its persecution of the underground Catholic church ever since the Holy See softened its position on the state-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association, allowing believers to join despite its assertion of total independence from Rome.

“Observers and Catholic believers expressed concern that the agreement did not provide sufficient support for the Chinese Catholic community, with one scholar pointing out that the authorities’ persecution of both underground and official Catholic communities has actually intensified over the last year under the ‘‘sinicization’’ campaign,” the report read.

As bad as conditions in China were for Catholics and other Christians in 2019, they have proven even worse in 2020.

A series of harsh administrative measures for religious groups went into effect on February 1, 2020, bringing them even more completely under government control.

As of February, religious organizations must “spread the principles and policies of the Chinese Communist Party” by educating “religious staff and religious citizens to support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party,” reported AsiaNews, the official press agency of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions.

All religious activities or rallies and even programs of religious communities must have the approval of the Religious Affairs Office, as the new measures seek to complete the “regulations on religious affairs” that went into effect on February 1, 2018.

The government’s religious affairs department will assume absolute control over religious groups and “should perform their functions such as guiding and supervising the groups’ operation,” reports stated.

More broadly, the new regulations “stipulate how the groups should designate their officials, carry out their work and manage their own affairs,” the report stated.

As the Economist magazine noted in a September 13 essay, a “consistent theme of Pope Francis’s papacy has been a drive to improve relations with China, with which the Holy See has had no official ties since 1951.”

Vatican journalists have observed that Francis seems willing to sacrifice a lot in order to achieve his goal.

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