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Vatican extends deal with China on bishop appointments despite religious freedom concerns

by Will Maule

The Vatican has signed off on a two-year extension to a deal made with Beijing on the appointment of bishops. The agreement, which is thought to give Pope Francis a final say on the appointment of bishops in China, was drawn up in October 2018 and is likely to be continued without any changes. 

Since the deal was struck two years ago, Pope Francis has recognised several Chinese bishops who were not previously in communion with Rome. However, given the increasing levels of persecution against the church in the communist nation, and their extension of policing powers into Hong Kong, many are perplexed by the warm relations between The Vatican and Beijing. 

"We cannot feel any benefit [from the agreement]”, one source told persecution watchdog Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), noting that "all religions are suffering" under the Chinese regime.

A Vatican official told Reuters of the agreement: "We think it is prudent to extend it for another two years." They also noted that there would be "no changes" in relation to the agreement or its potential impact on Hong Kong. 

In June, the former Bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, criticised the Vatican for its discreet dealings with China and silence on issues related to both religious persecution and the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, 

"I’m sorry to say that we have nothing to expect from the Vatican," he lamented. "In these past few years, they have never said anything to reproach China for their persecution." 

Cardinal Zen accused the Vatican of having "surrendered the Church to the Chinese authority."

“In Hong Kong, in all this time of turmoil, with so many young people suffering the brutality of the police, not a word from the Vatican," he said.

Cardinal Zen went on to argue that the Vatican is “always trying to please the Chinese government" before warning that this was a “foolish" policy "because the Communists, they never grant anything, they just want to control".

Speaking on the latest agreement last week, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said that China was keen to renew the deal and that “the two sides will continue to maintain close communication and consultation and improve bilateral relations”.

CSW’s East Asia team leader, Benedict Rogers, said in response to the renewed agreement: “We echo the concerns expressed by Catholics inside and outside the country about the renewal of the agreement between the Vatican and Beijing. This comes at a time of rapid and significant deterioration in the level of freedom of religion or belief for people across China, including Catholics.

"Catholic leaders not recognised by the government continue to be harassed, and sometimes even detained or disappeared, while registered churches are under pressure to show their loyalty to the Party by flying the national flag, removing religious symbols, and stopping religious activities for under-18s.

"We are also deeply concerned about the lack of transparency concerning the agreement. We call on the Vatican to put freedom of religion or belief at the centre of all its decisions concerning Catholics in China, and to prioritise the release of prisoners of conscience still detained or disappeared in China, including Bishop James Su Zhimin.”

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