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Taiwan in China-Vatican tug of war

It is natural for religious sectors on both sides to move in the same direction

Francis Kuo Francis Kuo
  • Francis Kuo, Taipei
  • Taiwan
  • March 16, 2011
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Formal exchanges between the Churches in China and Taiwan appear to have quietly flourished as a result of the peace policy of Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, as seen from two visits by mainland delegations to the island within six months.

Wang Zuo’an, director of China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs, led the first last September. The other, in January, was a delegation from the Religions and Peace Commission, which comes under the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

Both delegations visited retired Cardinal Paul Shan and Archbishop John Hung of Taipei, former and current presidents of the bishops’ conference in Taiwan respectively. They invited the 88-year-old cardinal to visit China, with a trip most likely to take place in June, but did not invite Archbishop Hung, probably because he has stated that he would only want to meet Vatican-approved bishops.

These visits did not attract much media attention as they were made by ‘religious groups’. Certainly, they fulfilled Beijing’s desire for low-profile exchanges to “test the waters.”

Wang’s visit was to sing praise for Taipei’s peace policy promoted by President Ma.

After he returned home, an illicit episcopal ordination took place in November and many mainland bishops, priests and nuns were pressured into taking part in a government-sanctioned Catholic congress two weeks later. The two incidents immediately saw China-Vatican relations nosedive, with the Holy See issuing two communiqués expressing its condemnation.

The second delegation, which included Liu Yuanlong, the newly-elected secretary general and vice chair of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), sought to explain to Archbishop Hung Beijing’s position regarding the disputes and to clarify any misunderstandings. It was also probably Beijing’s intention to seek understanding from the Church in Taiwan, and indirectly, from the Vatican.

However, because of the timing of the two visits and the incidents that occurred in between, it is highly unlikely that China-Vatican relations will improve any time soon.

Beijing thus would like to use religious exchanges across the Taiwan Strait to enhance dialogue between the Churches for the time being, which might even help remove notions that Taiwan is an obstacle to China-Vatican relations when China and Vatican rebuild ties in the future.

It is also no surprise to see Wang trying to bring previously “underground” exchanges “above ground.”

Since cross-strait visits to mainland China were allowed in 1987, many clergy and laypeople from Taiwan have gone there to evangelize; help with religious formation; raise funds to build churches; and to sponsor the education of poor children.

However, most of these activities were done secretly. Clergy or Religious women wore ordinary clothes or used different identities to avoid the attention of China’s security apparatus or CCPA personnel during their visits.

After Taiwan’s Nationalist Party regained power two years ago, it has fostered closer relations with Beijing. Since there are regular contacts and more freedom in cross-strait trade and other areas, it is natural for religious sectors on both sides to move in the same direction.

However, with the existence of the CCPA, the greatest challenge to the Church in Taiwan is how it can help bring the “open” and “underground” Catholic communities back together.

While it is vital to the Taiwan Church to maintain Taiwan-Vatican ties, several local Church leaders are members of the Vatican’s China Commission, which plays a subtle but important role in China-Vatican relations.

Together with the government’s peace policy, Taiwan could replace Hong Kong as the bridge between the Vatican and Beijing.

Since more religious exchanges across the strait are anticipated in the near future, the Vatican could take this opportunity by encouraging the Taiwan Church to take the lead in facilitating reconciliation and unity between the open and underground communities.

However, with Archbishop Savio Hon, secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, calling on Hong Kong Catholics to continue their bridging role in a visit to Hong Kong soon after his ordination in February, it is likely the role of the Hong Kong Church will remain. This would go against Beijing’s wishes to have the Taiwan Church play a more prominent role.

Archbishop Hon’s Taiwan trip following his Hong Kong visit was both a “pastoral and private” one, according to Monsignor Paul Russell, the papal representative in Taiwan. While we don’t know what was discussed in closed-door meetings with Taiwanese Church leaders, we can presume he certainly took the opportunity to explore the Taiwan Church’s possible role too.

Anyhow, unity orchestrated through the Church, whether it’s through Hong Kong or Taiwan and not by Beijing, would be more to the Vatican’s taste.

TA13651.1645
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