Pope Francis has publicly defended Communist China’s practice of religious liberty, insisting that in China churches are full and religion is freely practiced.
In a lengthy interview last week with the leftist Spanish daily El País, the Pope said he would love to visit China “as soon as they invite me,” something he says he has made clear to Chinese authorities.
The pontiff said that the Vatican is engaged in ongoing dialogue with China and that a commission has been set up that meets every three months, with Beijing and the Vatican alternating as hosts of the encounter.
“China always has this aura of mystery about it that is fascinating,” Francis said, noting that not long ago the Vatican Museums held an exhibition in Beijing and that China would be reciprocating with an exhibit to be housed at the Vatican.
“In China the churches are full,” Francis insisted. “You can practice your faith in China.”
The Pope’s words stand in sharp contrast with a series of ongoing reports by religious freedom groups that insist that religious practice in China is anything but free.
In its most recent “Watch List” highlighting Christian persecution throughout the world, the non-profit group Open Doors placed China at number 39, among the worst offenders against religious freedom in the world.
“As Christians are the largest social force in China not controlled by the Communist Party,” Open Doors notes in its 2017 report, “there are increasing efforts to bring them under state control.”
“Historical Christian communities (including government-controlled churches) and non-traditional Protestant Christian communities are monitored and limited in their freedom of religion,” the report states, while communities of converts to Christianity “are particularly targeted.”
Similarly, in its most recent annual report, the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) once again placed China on “Tier 1” as a “country of particular concern,” meaning that the Chinese government is guilty of “particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”
“As the Chinese government aggressively asserts itself on the global stage, at home it aggressively violates the human rights and religious freedom of its citizens,” said USCIRF Chairman Thomas J. Reese.
“While these violations have intensified in Zhejiang Province,” Reese noted, “they also are taking place throughout China as the government seeks to repress the voices of individuals and groups advocating for their rights.”
Several theories exist concerning why Pope Francis would defend the actions of the Chinese Communist government regarding religious freedom.
Some Vatican watchers suggest that the pontiff may simply be ignorant of what really goes on in China, and that he has taken Communist Party spokesmen at their word.
Last spring, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei stated: “The Chinese government fully respects and safeguards Chinese citizens’ freedom of religious belief,” adding that “Chinese citizens are entitled to the right of religious freedom under the law.”
Others suggest that Francis may be willing to overlook China’s religious freedom violations in a bid to achieve diplomatic relations with the country’s government. The Pope often reiterates his belief that a “culture of encounter” is the way to peaceful resolution of all conflicts.
One of Pope Francis’ harshest critics regarding China is Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, the former Bishop of Hong Kong and China’s highest ranking Catholic cleric. Zen has sharply criticized a potential Vatican deal with China’s Communist Party that would cede some Church decision-making to the atheist government.
“You cannot go into negotiations with the mentality ‘we want to sign an agreement at any cost’, then you are surrendering yourself, you are betraying yourself, you are betraying Jesus Christ,” Zen said.
“Maybe the pope is a little naive, he doesn’t have the background to know the Communists in China,” Zen said. “The pope used to know the persecuted Communists [in Latin America], but he may not know the Communist persecutors who have killed hundreds of thousands.”
The Cardinal added that “the clergy need to side with the people, the poor and the persecuted, not with government.”
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