An agreement between the Vatican and the Chinese government on the appointment of bishops has been officially renewed, with the Vatican insisting that it is aware of "situations of great suffering" in China and vowing to raise the issue of religious freedom with Beijing.
Very few details have been released on the deal, though it is thought that the accord stipulates that Chinese bishops must be able to recognise the pope’s authority, even if the church remains heavily regulated by the Chinese state.
In a statement announcing the agreement, the Vatican stated that it will continue to bring up issues of religious freedom in China, which remains one of the most oppressive countries on earth in which to live as a Christian.
“It must be recognised that there are still many situations of great suffering," the Vatican said in the official newspaper Osservatore Romano. "The Holy See is very aware of this, it acknowledges it, and will not fail to bring it to the attention of the Chinese government in order favour a more fruitful exercising of religious freedom."
In response to questions from journalists on the details of the agreement, senior Cardinal Pietro Parolin simply responded that "everything will be fine" and that the accord must remain a "relative secret".
“Much of the content is already known," he added. "We can say we are pleased. We hope that there will be improvements regarding the functioning of the terms of the Agreement."
Parolin also admitted that the agreement certainly wouldn't bring an end to the endemic issues that people of faith continue to face in China.
"We do not think that the Agreement can solve all the problems in China," he said. "There are regulations that are imposed and that concern all religions, and certainly also concern the Catholic Church."
Cardinal Joseph Zen, the emeritus Bishop of Hong Kong and long-time critic of Beijing, has questioned the integrity of the Bishops appointed under the new agreement.
"Can the word of a totalitarian regime be trusted?” he asked. “If the Vatican is as compliant as it is, the legitimate bishops will not necessarily be worthy bishops. The independent Church in China is now full of ‘opportunistic’ bishops, people who sell themselves to the government to make a career of power and wealth."
Gina Goh, Regional Manager for Southeast Asia at persecution watchdog International Christian Concern, said: “The renewal of such an agreement between the Holy See and China is like another slap in the face for underground Catholics. In the past two years, even with this deal, the underground Catholics continued to face harassment and oppression – monasteries demolished, crosses removed, priests and nuns threatened or taken away.
"The improvement of treatment for the faithful claimed by the Vatican never came true and instead turned out to be worse. It is very unfortunate that the Holy See decided to dance with the wolf and sacrifice China’s underground Catholics for its own motives.”