China and Vatican extend deal on bishops

World | AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE 23 Oct 2020

A secretive 2018 agreement between Beijing and the Vatican was renewed yesterday, despite strident US condemnation and warnings from underground Chinese priests loyal to Rome that they have only become more marginalized since it was signed.

The deal allows both Beijing and the Holy See a say in appointing bishops in an attempt to close a schism in China's 12-million-strong Catholic community. Washington had put intense pressure on the Vatican to scrap the agreement, saying it has failed to shield Chinese Catholics from persecution.

"After friendly consultations," both sides agreed to the extension for two years, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said. "The two sides will maintain close communication and consultation, and continue to push forward the process of improving relations."

Newly communist China severed ties with the Holy See in 1951, forcing Catholics to choose between membership of the state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association or non-sanctioned churches loyal to the Pope.

The Communist Party is officially atheist and exercises strict control over all recognized religious institutions, including vetting sermons.

Those that operate without the Communist Party's blessing claim to have been targeted by authorities in recent years, pointing to the demolition of underground churches, persecution of members and pressure on their clergy to switch sides.

While some have hailed the Beijing-Vatican deal as a pragmatic compromise, others fear that China's underground churches will become even more marginalized.

"The situation has not improved at all," one underground priest in Jiangxi province said recently.

The priest said he had been banned by the government from carrying out church duties.

The renewal of the agreement, he said, would leave Catholics feeling "helpless and hopeless."

There was a potential sign of that pressure earlier this month when auxiliary bishop Vincenzo Guo Xijin of the Mindong Diocese in Fujian province abruptly resigned. Other underground figures, including Bishop Augustine Cui Tai, remain detained or under house arrest.

Critics - including retired Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong - have accused the Vatican of betraying its values to appease China. The underground community has practically disappeared, he said. "That's not victory, that's a defeat - complete defeat."

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