Vatican City : The Vatican announced on Saturday that it had reached a provisional deal with the Chinese government to end a decades-old power struggle over the authority to appoint bishops in China. It was the Communist country’s first formal recognition of the pope as leader of the Roman Catholic Church in the world’s most populous nation, Vatican officials said.
The provisional agreement, signed in Beijing by deputy foreign ministers from both sides, was announced as Pope Francis visited Lithuania on a four-day trip to the Baltic countries.
It gives the Holy See a decisive role in the appointment of all bishops in a country whose around 12 million Catholics have been split between an underground Church swearing loyalty to the Vatican and the state-supervised Catholic Patriotic Association.
Beijing’s long-held insistence that it must approve the appointments in China clashed with absolute papal authority to pick bishops. On Saturday, the Vatican said in a statement that Pope Francis had decided to approve seven bishops named by Beijing, not the Vatican, over the years, “with the view of sustaining the proclamation of the Gospel in China.”
Francis decided to “readmit to full ecclesial communion the remaining ‘official’ bishops ordained without pontifical mandate,” the statement said. “Pope Francis hopes that, with these decisions, a new process may begin that will allow the wounds of the past to be overcome, leading to the full communion of all Chinese Catholics.”
There was no immediate mention of the status of two underground bishops named by the pope.
But Vatican spokesman Greg Burke, speaking in Vilnius, Lithuania, where Pope Francis was visiting, indicated the accord would provide a blueprint for future appointments of bishops, who lead the faithful in their dioceses.
Burke told reporters that the aim of the accord “is not political but pastoral, allowing the faithful to have bishops who are in communion with Rome but at the same time recognized by Chinese authorities.”
He did not immediately provide details about the deal, announced at the Vatican and in Beijing shortly after Francis began a four-day pilgrimage to the Baltics.
The Vatican described the provisional agreement as “the fruit of a gradual and reciprocal rapprochement” following a “long process of careful negotiation,” and said it allows for periodic review. It added that the deal “creates the conditions for greater collaboration at the bilateral level.”
While the agreement could help pave the way for formal diplomatic ties and possibly an eventual papal trip to China, it was also sure to anger Catholics who vigorously advocated for the Vatican to maintain a hard line on caring for its flock in China, where Catholic clergy and rank-and-file faithful have suffered persecution and imprisonment over the years.
Under China’s Communist rule, the country’s estimated 12 million Catholics — a tiny minority in the populous nation — are split between those belonging to the government-backed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the underground one loyal to the pope.
The accord was signed in Beijing during a meeting between China’s deputy minister for foreign affairs, Wang Chao, and the Vatican undersecretary for state relations, Monsignor Antoine Camilleri.
China and the Vatican signed a provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops Saturday in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry said.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Chao and Antoine Camilleri, head of a Vatican delegation and the Under-Secretary for Relations with States, held talks and signed the agreement, according to a statement by the ministry.
China and the Vatican will continue to maintain contact and push forward the process of improving bilateral ties, the statement said
Even as China professed the desire for better relations with the Holy See, the deal was signed against a backdrop of a Chinese crackdown on religions. Under President Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, faithful are seeing their freedoms shrink even as the country experiences a religious revival. Experts and activists contend that as Xi is consolidating power, he is waging the most systematic suppression of Christianity since the Chinese constitution allowed for religious freedom in 1982.
Xi is trying to infuse all of the religions in China with “Chinese characteristics” such as loyalty to the Communist Party. As part of this drive, Islamic crescents and domes have been stripped from mosques and a campaign is underway to “re-educate” tens of thousands of Uighur Muslims. Tibetan children have been moved from Buddhist temples to schools and banned from religious activities during summer holidays, state-run media have reported.
This spring, a five-year plan regarding Christians was introduced, along with new rules on religious affairs. Over the last few months, local governments across China have shut down hundreds of private Christian “house churches.”
The Vatican spokesman indicated there was still some ways to go for better relations between the Catholic Church and China.
“This is not the end of a process. It’s the beginning,” Burke said. “This has been about dialogue, patient listening on both sides even when people come from very different standpoints.”
Bridging different points of view has characterized much of Francis’ five-year papacy, and led to the Vatican helping improve relations between another communist nation, Cuba, and the United States.
In Taiwan, the foreign ministry said in a statement that “as the world watches China increasingly tightening control over religious practices, Taiwan trusts that the Holy See has made appropriate arrangements to ensure that Catholic adherents in China will receive due protection and not be subject to repression.”
“Today, for the first time all the bishops in China are in communion with the Bishop of Rome (the pope),” Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State and one of the chief architects of the deal, said in a statement.
Vatican sources have said that a few bishops appointed by Rome will cede their places to bishops who had been appointed by Beijing.
In future, new bishops first will be proposed by members of local Catholic communities together with Chinese authorities. The names of candidates will be sent to the Vatican and the pope will make a final decision, the sources said.
Critics of an agreement with China are rife within the church, but also as far afield as the United States, where it has been harshly criticized by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. They have argued that the pope risked setting a terrible precedent by folding to an authoritarian power with a shameful record of human rights abuses and persecution of religious groups.
But the church has been making concessions to secular powers since before Pope Leo III crowned the Frankish king, Charlemagne in the year 800. In the 16th century, the pope gave a French king the right to appoint major clerics and Pope Pius VII signed a similar agreement with Napoleon in the 19th century.
The Vatican accepted limitations to operate under Communist governments such as Vietnam’s. Mr. Melloni also recalled the church’s Ostpolitik, in which it dealt with communist regimes in Europe’s east during the Cold War.
“The strategy of the Holy See,” he said, “has always been to negotiate.”
Image : Catholic priest Liu Yong Wang performs holy communion in a make-shift chapel in the village of Bai Gu Tun, located on the outskirts of the city of Tianjin, around 70 km (43 miles) south-east of Beijing.