In a statement sure to confirm the worst fears of skeptics of a new China-Vatican deal, a Chinese bishop of the government-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association has said that loyal citizenship must take priority over Christian faith.
Bishop Peter Fang Jianping of Tangshan said this week that Catholics should give their allegiance to President Xi Jinping “because we, as citizens of the country, should first be a citizen and then have religion and beliefs,” according to a recent report.
Fang, who was ordained a bishop in China without Vatican approval in 2000 and later legitimized by the Holy See, is a member of the National People’s Congress (NPC), the Chinese parliament that on March 11 voted to eliminate presidential term limits.
Asked about church-state relations, the bishop justified his subordination of the faith to political powers by citing Jesus’ injunction to render to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s.
Expressing optimism about a historic agreement between the Chinese government and the Holy See, Fang said that if Rome legitimizes mainland bishops, the move will improve Sino-Vatican relations and allow for greater development of the Church in China.
President Xi has made it clear that all religions active in China must be “Sinicized,” or rendered compatible with the beliefs and programs of Communist Chinese culture and cleansed of western influence.
Bishop Fang wasn’t alone this week in speaking out favorably of the proposed deal between the Vatican and the Chinese government.
In a Chinese media interview at the Chinese Communist Party’s annual meetings this week, two excommunicated bishops also suggested that the accord between China and the Holy See would be beneficial to Chinese society and the work of the Church there.
Paul Lei Shiyin, the Patriotic Bishop of Leshan, who was excommunicated by the Holy See because of his unauthorized episcopal ordination, said that diplomatic ties between China and the Vatican would benefit China’s international influence and permit the Church greater leeway for its pastoral work in the country.
In a March 10 interview, a second excommunicated bishop, Vincent Zhan Silu of Mindong, told China’s Sing Tao Daily that there are no obstacles to a China-Vatican deal “if everyone just thinks of the benefit of the church for the sake of peace.”
The new deal being brokered between the Holy See and China’s Communist leadership would reestablish diplomatic ties, which were severed by Beijing in 1951. Not long afterward, China established its Catholic Patriotic Association as a government-controlled parallel church with no allegiance to Rome.
The deal reportedly includes the provision that Pope Francis will legitimize seven excommunicated bishops in China who were ordained without Holy See approval, as well as giving the Chinese government an unspecified role in naming Catholic bishops in the country.
Some 12 million Catholics are believed to currently be living in China, split roughly 50-50 between the Catholic Patriotic Association and the illegal “underground Church” of those faithful to Rome.
Wang Zuoan, director of the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA), told media this week that China has always striven to improve Sino-Vatican relations, while describing communications between the two parties as effective and smooth.
Since President Xi took power in 2013, authorities have removed some 1,500 crosses from Christian church buildings, usually by citing irregularities in building permits, as part of Xi’s program of “Sinicization.”
As of February 1, 2018, a strict new set of regulations of religious practice has gone into effect, described in one report as consciously intended to “annihilate underground communities” and “suffocate official communities.”
The new norms overhauling religious practice in the officially communist country were drafted by the same State Administration for Religious Affairs and include the imposition of massive fines for persons associated with underground religious communities not authorized by the state, which have no legal standing in the country.
The regulations also mandate that no one under 18 years of age is allowed to enter a church building, as part of an effort to separate youth from Christian education and practice.
The Chinese government has branded all religion a national security threat, while singling out Christianity as a paramount concern. Christianity has seen such a dramatic surge in popularity that Christians reportedly outnumber Communist Party members in the country.
Despite China’s claims of “religious freedom,” the U.S. State Department as well as numerous watchdog groups consider China to be guilty of systemic religious oppression.
Whereas the People’s Republic of China claims to recognize freedom of religion since 1978, Communist party members are forbidden to belong to or practice any religion. In 2011, Zhu Weiqun, executive vice minister of the United Front Work Department, wrote, “Party members shall not believe in religion, which is a principle to be unswervingly adhered to.”
Last month, Chinese authorities sent more than 100 Christians, mostly converts, to “re-education camps” to learn loyalty to the country’s ruling party, according to reports.
A year ago, Pope Francis publicly defended China’s practice of religious liberty, in what many observers described as an effort at appeasement in a bid to establish formal diplomatic ties with the country.
In an interview with the Spanish daily El País, Francis insisted that in China, churches are full and religion is practiced freely, adding he would love to visit China “as soon as they invite me,” something he says he has made clear to Chinese authorities.
“In China the churches are full,” Francis declared. “You can practice your faith in China.”
The chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences has praised life in China, insisting that the atheistic communist regime has created the best model for living out Catholic social teaching today.
Argentinean Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo was excoriated by China experts after telling a journalist that “at this moment, the Chinese are the ones implementing Catholic social teaching best.”
Missionary Father Bernardo Cervellera rebuked Sánchez Sorondo for his “exaltation” of Chinese society, saying that because of his “naivete” he has “made the Catholic Church a laughingstock.”
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