Vatican seeks to extend bishops deal with Beijing that has brought ‘positive, despite limited’ results

Mimi Lau

Published: 12:00pm, 1 Oct, 2020

   Holy See defends its position on the controversial agreement as pressure mounts on Pope Francis

   Vatican’s secretary of state says it is ‘worth continuing’ to ‘verify its usefulness for the church in China’

The Vatican is seeking to extend a controversial agreement with Beijing on the appointment of bishops that it says has brought “positive, despite limited” results in the two years since it was signed.

It is the first time the Holy See has publicly defended its position on the deal, as pressure mounts on Pope Francis– including from some of his own cardinals – to withdraw from the agreement amid criticism over China’s human rights record.

The pact is due to be renegotiated before it expires next month, though Beijing has not yet said whether it plans to extend the agreement.

In an editorial in its mouthpiece Vatican News on Tuesday, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said the deal was “worth continuing” on provisional terms to “verify its usefulness for the church in China”.

“Notwithstanding the lengthy period of time and difficulties, aggravated in the last 10 months due to the pandemic … it seems to me that a direction has been marked out that is worth continuing; then we will see,” Parolin was quoted as saying.

The editorial was published ahead of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s arrival in Rome on Wednesday. Pompeo had planned a meeting with Pope Francis, but it was cancelled – reportedly because the Holy See was concerned that it might be seen as a sign of support for President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign. The US secretary of state is on a six-day European tour, and met Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio in Rome on Wednesday.

Pompeo has been a vocal critic of Beijing’s repressive policies against religions and he called on the Pope to show “courage” on China when he arrived in Rome, Agence France-Presse reported.

“Nowhere is religious freedom under assault more than in China … I call on every faith leader to find the courage to confront religious persecution,” Pompeo said at a symposium organised by the Holy See’s US embassy.

A decision on whether the bishops agreement will be extended is expected to be announced next month. Signed on September 22, 2018, it took effect a month later on an experimental term of two years.

In the editorial, the Holy See also explained that the pact deals exclusively with the appointment of bishops in China and does not touch on diplomatic relations with Beijing, the juridical status of China’s Catholic Church, or relations between the clergy and the country’s authorities.

Details of the agreement – signed after more than three decades of negotiations – have never been made public, but it was the first indication that Beijing was ready to share some authority with the Pope over control of China’s Catholic Church.

It was hoped that resolving bishop appointments in China would help to heal a rift from the 1940s, when Beijing kicked the church out of the country and later started an autonomous Catholic church, independent of Rome. The schism directly affects around 12 million Catholics in China who are split between a so-called underground church that looks to the Pope for authority, and state-run churches controlled by Beijing’s Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

Vatican officials told the South China Morning Post in July that Rome was ready to extend the agreement by two years on the existing terms despite what it saw as a failure by Beijing “to fulfil its part of the bargain”.

Despite the agreement, Catholics in China are still subject to persecution, with underground bishops arrested, going missing or placed under house arrest. Minors have been banned from attending church services, while religious symbols over churches as well as mosques have been demolished or removed.

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