New reports indicate that a deal between the People’s Republic of China and the Vatican is imminent. If inked, the pact may have serious implications for the religious freedom of Catholics in China, as well as for diplomatic ties with Taiwan, which the Vatican currently recognizes as the official representative of faithful Catholics in China.
The deal purportedly grants the Chinese government power to nominate future bishops. It would also require the Vatican to recognize seven excommunicated Chinese bishops currently operating in China without recognition from Rome.
When the notion of a deal was first raised, Catholics around the world voiced concerns over the role the Chinese government would play in the appointment of Catholic bishops. Under the proposed deal, the pope has veto power over bishops nominated by Chinese authorities. In all other countries, the pope possesses sole authority to appoint bishops.
News of an impending deal comes amidst a crackdown on people of faith throughout China. A Human Rights Watch report estimates that over a million Muslim Uighurs are currently detained in re-education camps in the western province of Xinjiang. Rising persecution of Protestants in China grabbed the attention of lawmakers in Congress who condemned reports that Chinese authorities are burning Bibles, imprisoning pastors, and tearing down crosses from churches.
Religious persecution has long been a feature of Chinese Communist Party rule. Since the 19th Party Congress last October, however, religious persecution has risen substantially. New Regulations on Religious Affairs, instituted this February, represented an extension of the party’s attempts to Sinicize religious practice—essentially an effort to secularize religion so that it serves the party’s ends.
Finalizing a deal now would send the message that the Vatican is willing to turn a blind eye to Chinese threats to religious freedom—including the persecution of Catholics.
The State Department’s latest International Religious Freedom report estimates that China is home to 12 million Catholics. Some are congregants in China’s officially recognized churches, while others worship in underground churches. The 2017 report recounts the bulldozing of Catholic churches, the forcible disappearance of Father Lu Danhua (now believed to be held in a religious “re-education” facility), and the detention and imprisonment of numerous Catholic parishioners.
A report on China from Freedom House suggests that persecution of Catholics is on a downward trend, but that religious persecution overall is still rising.
It is against this backdrop that the Vatican intends to normalize relations with China.
Any Vatican deal with Beijing will also affect religious freedom in Taiwan. Taiwan is known for respecting religious freedom. But under the One China policy, the Vatican would likely be required to switch official recognition from Taiwan to China.
Such a transition would sever ties with Taiwan’s last remaining European ally and send a negative message to Taiwanese Catholics who have faithfully operated in accordance with Rome since the Holy See granted diplomatic recognition of Taiwan in 1942.
Before signing a deal with Beijing, the Vatican should think seriously about the message that act would send regarding its concern for religious freedom in China. Any decision should be made with the primary goal of advancing religious freedom for all. Granting the Chinese government authority over the appointment of bishops is unlikely to achieve those ends.
This piece originally appeared in Forbes https://www.forbes.com/sites/oliviaenos/2018/09/14/religious-freedom-for-chinas-catholics-imperiled-if-vatican-deal-is-inked/#9b78eec63cd1