Chinese Foreign Minister Arrives in Rome, Sparking Debate over Vatican-Beijing Deal

Pope Francis meets a group of faithful from China at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Wednesday, April 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia

ROME — Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi arrived in Rome Tuesday, rekindling debate over the renewal of the highly contested Sino-Vatican deal over the naming of Catholic bishops in China.

Wang is scheduled to meet with his Italian counterpart Luigi Di Maio. In March, 2019, Italy became the first large European economy to join China’s international infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

One unnamed Vatican source said that during his stay Wang will also “surely” meet with Holy See negotiators, perhaps in the Chinese embassy in Italy, Religión Digital reported Monday.

“We must not forget that Wang Yi already met Paul Gallagher, his Vatican counterpart, in February,” the source reportedly added, in reference to a meeting between the two men in Munich at the beginning of the year.

The secret accord between the Holy See and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), whose details have never been made public, was signed on September 22, 2018 and is due to be renegotiated and renewed next month, when it will expire. The controversial deal involved the Vatican yielding an unspecified amount of authority for the appointment of Catholic bishops in the country.

Last June, Vatican Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, the head of the delegation in relations with the Chinese government, said on Italian television that the agreement is likely to be renewed this September.

“Dialogue with China is not an easy path but we have embarked on a path made of respect, attention, and mutual understanding to resolve the knots that remain and the situations that leave us more than thoughtful, I would say worried,” said the archbishop.

“I think we will probably have to reconfirm it for another 1-2 years, but still the Holy See has not made a decision on this matter which will then be communicated to the Chinese authorities,” he said. “However, the climate is positive, and there is an atmosphere of respect, clarity, co-responsibility, and foresight.”

“We try to look to the future and try to give the future of our relationships a deep, respectful basis and I would say that we are working in this direction,” he said.

“It is undeniable that there are situations and events that require a path that will not be easy. But the Holy See wants to continue on this path, it wants to go ahead and reach a normality from which the Chinese Catholics can express all their fidelity to the Gospel and also respect for his Chinese identity. The Catholic Church in China must be fully Chinese but fully Catholic!”

Critics of the agreement have contended that the accord has made religious freedom in China worse, and the CCP has used it as cover for intensifying its persecution of Christians.

Last January, the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) released its annual report on human rights conditions and rule of law developments in China, finding an overall deterioration of religious liberty in China over the year 2019.

“In September 2018, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs signed an agreement with the Holy See, paving the way for the unification of state-sanctioned and underground Catholic communities,” the report stated. “Subsequently, local Chinese authorities subjected Catholic believers in China to increased persecution by demolishing churches, removing crosses, and continuing to detain underground clergy.”

“The Party-led Catholic national religious organizations also published a plan to ‘sinicize’ Catholicism in China,” the report continued, referring to the stated aim of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of forcing all religions to conform their teachings and practices to the party line.

Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping has doubled down on the “sinicization” of religion, the report’s executive summary observed. “Scholars and international rights groups have described religious persecution in China over the last year to be of an intensity not seen since the Cultural Revolution,” it added.

While a representative of the Holy See stated that the aim of the agreement was “for Chinese Catholic believers to have bishops recognized by both the Holy See and Chinese authorities,” the report said that “observers noted that the Chinese government was likely seeking to increase its control over the underground community.”

Beijing has cracked down on the underground church ever since the Holy See softened its position on the state-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association, allowing believers to join despite its insistence on total independence from Rome.

“Although the terms of the agreement were not made public, a source familiar with the negotiations stated that the agreement gave the Chinese government the authority to nominate bishops, which the Pope would retain the right to veto,” the report continued. “The Holy See also recognized seven formerly excommunicated official bishops as part of the deal, having already asked two underground bishops to give up their positions to make way for two of these state-sanctioned bishops.”

The report concluded that the situation of Catholics in China is now worse than it was before the Vatican signed its 2018 accord with the CCP.

“Observers and Catholic believers expressed concern that the agreement did not provide sufficient support for the Chinese Catholic community, with one scholar pointing out that the authorities’ persecution of both underground and official Catholic communities has actually intensified over the last year under the ‘sinicization’ campaign,” it said.

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