Growing Coalition Questions Vatican Silence on China’s Human Rights Abuses

A worshipers waves the flag of China as Pope Francis leaves following the weekly general audience on June 12, 2019 at St. Peter's square in the Vatican. (Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP) (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)
FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty

ROME — A growing number of human rights advocates and observers are vocally expressing their bewilderment at the Vatican’s silence over the egregious human rights abuses perpetrated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Pope Francis and other key Vatican figures have avoided criticizing ongoing violations of religious liberty in China, despite the Holy See’s constant appeals to end such abuses elsewhere.

During his annual Christmas message last December, for instance, Pope Francis offered up prayers for troubled regions around the world, remembering all those who suffer persecution, and yet conspicuous by its absence in the nearly exhaustive list was any mention of the persecution of religious believers in China or the ongoing Hong Kong pro-democracy protests.

Among the many held up for their suffering, the pope enumerated “the Middle East,” the “beloved Syrian people,” “the Lebanese people,” “Iraq,” “Yemen,” “the whole American continent,” “the beloved Venezuelan people,” “beloved Ukraine,” “the people of Africa,” “the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” “Burkina Faso,” “Mali,” “Niger,” and “Nigeria.”

Not a word for Chinese Christians, members of Falun Gong, or persecuted Uighur Muslims.

In a curious case of cognitive dissonance, the pope himself has only had praise for China, insisting that its communist government protects religious freedom and that its “churches are full.” He has also reversed Church discipline to allow Chinese Catholic priests to enroll in the state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which was set up under the rule of Chairman Mao Zedong as a parallel church to the church in Rome.

Francis’ efforts to cozy up to the CCP have earned him only reproach from his critics, such as the former bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, who claims that due to his naivete, Pope Francis is “killing” the underground Church in China.

In an unusual departure from the path marked by Vatican leadership, the United States bishops have called on the faithful to pray for Chinese Christians and to inform themselves on the horrendous abuses being carried out by the government of Xi Jinping.

This past June, the U.S. Bishops published a stinging communiqué calling out the CCP for its shocking violations of religious liberty.

“Under the Chinese Communist Party, Chinese citizens have limited religious freedom,” the bishops noted. “Since 2013, religious persecution has intensified under a government campaign for the ‘sinicization’ of religion — an effort to have religions conform to government-sanctioned interpretations of Chinese culture.”

“While the Vatican has reached a provisional agreement with China on the issue of episcopal appointments, reports of persecution by the Chinese government persist as underground churches are closed and their priests detained, crosses destroyed, bibles confiscated, and children under 18 forbidden from attending Mass and receiving religious instruction,” the bishops said.

Along with the sufferings of persecuted Christians, the bishops also underscored the situation of Muslim minorities in China, particularly the Uighurs.

“Muslims have suffered grievous human rights abuses,” the bishops wrote. “Since 2017, 800,000 to possibly two million ethnic Uighur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Hui Muslims have been arbitrarily detained in mass internment camps.”

Similarly, Cardinal Charles Bo of Myanmar, president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, released a statement this summer noting that in China, “the Uyghur Muslims are facing what amounts to some of the contemporary world’s worst mass atrocities and I urge the international community to investigate.”

Church figures have not been alone in their criticism of China’s abuses and of the Vatican’s appeasement policy.

Earlier this year, Lord Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, said the Vatican “got it badly wrong about China” in its 2018 accord with the Communist Party on the naming of bishops.

“It is very sad, but under Xi Jinping things have gone backwards in China,” Patten told the Tablet, a UK-based Catholic journal, adding that it was “bizarre” for the Vatican to warm to the Communist Party at this time.

“How can you have a rapprochement on religious issues with China when there are a million or more Uighur Muslims locked up in Xinjiang?” asked Patten, who has been chancellor of Oxford University since 2003.

Lord Patten, who was the governor of Hong Kong from 1992 to 1997, said he understands why the Vatican has an interest in China but questions the opportuneness of its timing and method.

“Of course I am in favour of them trying to do what they can to make it easier for Catholics and Christians to worship in China,” said Patten, who is himself a Catholic.

“I just think this was an extraordinary time to be doing this with an administration in China which has gone back on human rights – which is making things tougher on human rights. That is what Xi Jinping has been doing,” he said.

“I find myself sympathising hugely with Cardinal Zen on this and with others,” Lord Patten said.

In late July, a searing article in Foreign Affairs drew an unfavorable parallel between the reaction of prominent Jews to China’s atrocities and that of the Catholic Church.

While the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Marie van der Zyl, has drawn comparisons between the plight of the Uighurs in China today and the Holocaust, no such indictment has emerged from the Vatican, Benedict Rogers noted in his article.

Nobody could see the evidence and fail to note “the similarities between what is alleged to be happening in the People’s Republic of China today and what happened in Nazi Germany 75 years ago: People being forcibly loaded on to trains; beards of religious men being trimmed; women being sterilised; and the grim spectre of concentration camps,” Ms. van der Zyl declared.

“But one voice has been strangely absent — that of Pope Francis, ordinarily a powerful advocate for the oppressed,” Rogers stated. “His silence speaks to the dangers of the deal made with China by the Vatican — and demands that others in the church speak out.”

“It is Francis’s silence that shocks me most,” Rogers wrote. “Almost every Sunday, as he prays the Angelus, he rightly references some injustice somewhere in the world. He has spoken often in the past not only of the persecution of Christians around the world but of the plight of the Rohingyas in Myanmar; the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, and Nigeria; and religious freedom for all.”

Writing for the Sunday Times this summer, Dominic Lawson expressed similar perplexity at the Vatican’s dogged unwillingness to employ its moral authority to call the CCP to an account.

“As more and more nations have expressed their concern about the growing evidence of concentration camps and even genocide in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, there has been silence from the one entity that has the whole of suffering humanity at the core of its mission. I refer to the Holy See,” Mr. Lawson wrote.

“This is part of the Holy See’s long campaign to achieve full mutual diplomatic relations with Beijing, which Vatican diplomats imagine will give them leverage with a leading world power,” Lawson added. “But it was a concession Francis’s predecessors would not have made — especially not the fiercely anti-communist John Paul II.”

“The replacement of bishops appointed by Rome with those acceptable to Beijing (and previously excommunicated) has caused consternation among faithful Catholics,” he wrote. “One priest described it to me as ‘an act of perfidy, stupidity and betrayal.’”

Vatican watchers have attributed the Holy See’s strange unwillingness to call out China’s abuses on its intense desire to establish diplomatic relations with the Asian giant, for which the Vatican has been willing to turn a blind eye to myriad cruelties.

Last May, veteran Vatican journalist John L. Allen, Jr. wrote that the Holy See is pulling out all the stops to woo Beijing into full diplomatic relations.

The Vatican is “covetous of a relationship with China, and often apparently willing to stifle objections and give away a great deal” in order to make this happen, Mr. Allen wrote.

In short, “the Vatican is moving full-steam ahead in its courtship of Beijing, with the ultimate prize remaining full diplomatic relations, a secure legal standing for the church, and partnerships on the global stage,” Allen said.

The linchpin for the Vatican’s charm offensive has been its 2018 secret accord with the CCP regarding the naming of Chinese bishops, a move that received an avalanche of criticism at the time and has only been aggravated by ongoing CCP aggressions against Christians after the deal was signed.

Father Benedict Kiely, founder of Nasarean.org, a charity helping persecuted Christians, has voiced his consternation over the Vatican’s willingness to lend moral credibility to a hostile regime that seems to offer little in return.

The Vatican sold the farm in its 2018 accord with the CCP on the naming of bishops, Father Kiely laments in a recent essay, ceding authority to the CCP in appointing Catholic bishops while gaining little to nothing.

“The accord, signed in secret, in theory allowed for some kind of unity between the ‘official’ Patriotic Church and the underground Church, especially focusing on the appointment of bishops with both Vatican and government approval,” Kiely notes. “However, it seems to most knowledgeable observers that the agreement gave most of the power to the regime and, two years later, more than half of China’s 98 Catholic dioceses are still without bishops.”

“Meanwhile the official doctrine of the Communist party is to ‘sinicize’ every aspect of religious life in China, not only Catholicism,” he writes. “Persecution of the underground Church has continued, with bishops and priests being arrested.”

“According to the charity Open Doors USA, ‘every facet of persecution’ of religion has increased in China in recent years, with the persecution of ‘Church life”—parish activity, religious education, social action—at what they measure as “90% persecution,’” Father Kiely noted.

“The world is only just beginning to realize the extent of the persecution of the Chinese Uighur Muslims, according to some experts reaching the level of genocide, with conservative estimates of more than 1.5 million Uighurs in ‘re-education camps,’” he said.

As a growing opposition to the Holy See’s China policy coalesces, Pope Francis risks damaging the historic legacy of his pontificate.

It would be ironic — not to say tragic — if the pope who made defense of the poor and marginalized the hallmark of his papacy were to be remembered not for his accomplishments in lifting up the peripheries but for his silence on China.

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