China Dashes Hopes for Vatican Accord, Confirms Absolute State Control Over Religion

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The Chinese government has reaffirmed its intentions to keep an iron grip on religious practice in the country, releasing a new “white paper” Tuesday that excludes yielding any authority over religious activities to foreign entities.

At the rollout of the white paper, euphemistically titled “China’s Policies and Practices on Protecting Freedom of Religious Belief,” a senior official said that China will not allow any foreign interference in religious affairs in the country, which was immediately understood to refer to Vatican influence in the naming of Catholic bishops in China.

“I think there is no religion in human society that is above the state,” said Chen Zongrong, in a briefing reported as “dousing” hopes of an imminent diplomatic accord between China and the Vatican.

“Religious groups and religious affairs are not subject to control by foreign countries; this principle is enshrined in the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China,” the paper states.

“This principle is a historic choice made by Chinese religious believers in the Chinese people’s struggle for national independence and social progress, as Catholicism and Protestantism, which were known as foreign religions in China, had long been controlled and utilized by colonialists and imperialists,” it reads.

Father Bernardo Cervellera, an expert on China who has been critical of the proposed Vatican-China deal, wrote on Tuesday that the white paper is loaded with “historical forgeries” regarding supposedly peaceful relations between the Chinese government and religious bodies.

Despite government claims that religious conflict has “rarely been seen” in China over the past 2,000 years, one should remember that the emperors—from the Tang to the Qing—pitted one religion against the other, while during the period of Mao and the cultural revolution “the Party attempted to annihilate all religious expression,” Father Cervellera said.

The priest also helped decipher language in the paper that carries a specific meaning on the lips of the communist authorities, particularly the notion of the government’s “active guidance” of religion.

The white paper states that Chinese authorities will provide “active guidance” of religious bodies so that they “can adapt to socialist society,” Cervellera wrote. “This ‘active guidance’ is a slogan of Xi Jinping, reiterated at the CPC Congress last October and at the National People’s Congress in March. It is also a principle of the new regulations on religious activities that make this ‘active guidance’ the tool for total control of every action of believers at every level of the state organigram.”

In presenting the paper, Mr. Chen said that as a matter of policy there are “no underground churches or house churches” in China, despite the fact that an estimated 6 million believers belong to the underground Catholic Church faithful to Rome.

In the fall of 2017, the Vatican asked two bishops faithful to Rome to “step aside” in order to be substituted by members of the collaborating Patriotic Association, in what was understood as a concession to prepare the way for a diplomatic agreement with the CPC.

In a letter dated October 26, 2017, the Vatican ordered eighty-year-old Bishop Zhuang to resign and leave his post to the illicit bishop Giuseppe Huang Bingzhang, whom the Holy See purportedly planned to rehabilitate.

The other underground bishop asked by the Vatican to cede his post, Bishop Vincent Guo Xijin of Mindong, was arrested by police on Monday of Holy Week, but released a day later.

Some China watchers, like Hong Kong Cardinal John Tong, had declared themselves to be “optimistic” about a Vatican-China deal, while others, like Cardinal Joseph Zen described the prospective agreement as a “betrayal” of faithful Chinese Catholics.

Tuesday’s white paper lays out Chinese intentions plainly.

“The Chinese government will resolutely oppose and deal with foreign organizations and individuals engaging in activities which violate China’s Constitution, laws, regulations and policies,” the paper warns, as well as “their attempts to control China’s religious organizations, to interfere in China’s religious affairs and to subvert the Chinese government and socialist system under the guise of religion.”

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