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Report: China’s Underground Christians Feel Betrayed by Vatican Deal with Beijing

Cardinal critic reveals drama in Vatican's overture to China
AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia

Members of China’s Christian community feel betrayed by the Vatican’s negotiations with Beijing over Chinese bishop appointments. In fact, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) writes of Catholics feeling as “betrayed and abandoned” as Jesus on Good Friday.

Christian faith occupies a curious position in Chinese society—frowned upon and distrusted by the Communist elite, but not currently oppressed as savagely as in neighboring North Korea. Some Chinese Catholics belong to churches authorized by the state, but others say those churches are controlled by the state and prefer to worship at “underground” churches free of political influence.

Some of those churches are not very far underground; the SCMP describes one that is festooned with government surveillance cameras, but forty or so Catholics congregate there anyway. Another passage in the article describes an entire village of 3,000 underground Catholics kept under creepy surveillance by cameras and undercover police. Some estimates suggested there are about 12 million Catholics in China, and 60 percent of them belong to state-sanctioned churches.

Amid much controversy, the Vatican has been negotiating the resumption of formal diplomatic relations with Beijing. One of the key issues concerns how bishops would be appointed. China’s authoritarian government wants politically reliable bishops to manage a Catholicism that harmonizes with the Communist Party’s political agenda.

To the dismay of many Catholics, the Vatican seems to have worked out a deal where it will retain an advisory role, but the government will have a major role in appointing bishops. There is tremendous controversy over whether the arrangement would give the Pope or the Politburo the final say in appointments. Even the most optimistic descriptions of the deal suggest that candidates will have to be acceptable to both parties, which angers many Catholics by putting the Chinese Communist Party on an equal footing with the papacy in a role no other government in the world enjoys.

Supporters of the arrangement hope that it will allow the Catholic Church to flourish in China because the regime will no longer view the faith as a threatening subversive force. They portray giving the Vatican a voice in China’s state-controlled church network as a tremendous accomplishment.

“It is not a great agreement but we don’t know what the situation will be like in 10 or 20 years. It could even be worse,” a source familiar with the negotiations told Reuters in February. “Afterwards we will still be like a bird in a cage but the cage will be bigger. It is not easy. Suffering will continue. We will have to fight for every centimeter to increase the size of the cage.”

One of the strongest critics of the deal, former Hong Kong bishop Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun, frankly denounced the Vatican for selling out to China, described the deal as a suicide pact, and even suggested the diplomats working on the agreement were misleading Pope Francis about what it entailed.

The South China Morning Post on Friday quoted underground church members who felt the same, including priests who spoke of retiring in protest. One of the most infuriating aspects of the deal is that two underground bishops who were appointed by the Vatican have been ordered to step aside for Communist-appointed bishops.

One of those underground bishops, 59-year-old Vincent Guo Xijin of Fujian province, was arrested on Monday for unclear reasons and held for a day. Amnesty International researcher Patrick Poon was outraged at the semi-official explanation that Guo was brought in for “talks,” which he said, “In the Communist Chinese context is always about detention and threats.”

“Quite a number of underground parishioners who would never walk into an official church approached us recently asking if the Vatican is really giving up on legitimate underground bishops for illicit ones. No one can wrap their head around the Vatican’s rationale,” a priest who asked to be identified as “Father Pedro” who leads one of the state-approved Chinese churches, told the South China Morning Post.

Father Pedro was quoted in another South China Morning Post article on Friday where he unhappily predicted that the Vatican’s diplomatic outreach to China is unlikely to bear fruit for Catholics in his lifetime. “Is Beijing really ready to let go its grip and talk sincerely with the Vatican?” he asked.

“This is no different to a father giving up his own children to strangers who set out to harm them. Why is the Pope adding new pain to unhealed injuries?” asked a nun from a rural church who spoke to the SCMP.

The nun accused Vatican officials of “abandoning the interests of underground churches just to make friends with a totalitarian regime,” and said that she knows of several underground priests who are considering retirement because of the deal.

One veteran priest whose family has spent a combined 150 years in jail for defiantly practicing their faith in China said he plans to “retreat quietly” because of the Vatican deal with Beijing, and rendered perhaps the harshest judgment of all: “Not a moment was regrettable since I’ve pledged my life to the Virgin Mary … but if Pope Benedict XVI had not retired, none of this would have happened.”

Some observers worried that the Chinese government has too strong of a hand in negotiations, feeling no urgent need to strike a deal because its state-sanctioned churches already have the Catholic situation fairly well in hand. Others warned that the Communist government is liable to revise any deal it makes in the future, especially if it sees the population of the underground church movement dwindling after a deal with the Vatican, either because they move to more comfortable state-sanctioned churches or abandon Catholicism in despair.

A Vatican spokesman on Thursday said that, contrary to media buzz, “There is no imminent signature of an agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China.”

“I would like to stress that the Holy Father Francis remains in constant contact with his collaborators on Chinese issues and is accompanying the steps of the ongoing dialogue,” the spokesman added.

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