The Bishop of Guangzhou, Joseph Gan Junqiu, has called on the Vatican to better understand the Church in China in the hope of improving relations. With both the Holy See and Beijing undergoing recent changes of leadership, Bishop Gan noted that there was still no word from the Vatican on how Pope Francis might tackle the thorny issue of ties with the Chinese government. “The Vatican doesn’t really understand the reality of the Church in China,” Bishop Gan said during an interview at his house in the compound of Guangzhou Cathedral. Suggesting ways to mend what has been a stormy relationship in recent years amid arguments over ordinations and minimal contact, Bishop Gan said that the Vatican should “see the China Church like a Chinese.” The state-sanctioned “open” Church community and the “unregistered” community needed to unite and then the Vatican and Beijing should begin to slowly rebuild relations, he said. “We don’t yet know what the new pope is going to say and do regarding China,” said Bishop Gan. Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi declined to comment on relations with China. Bishop Gan said that the media had fueled a siege mentality in Beijing by fixating on religious intolerance in China – and the discord between the official and unregistered communities in particular – while ignoring positive developments. A government donation of 19 million yuan (US$3 million) in 2007 to help renovate Guanzhou’s 125-year-old Sacred Heart Cathedral and the steadily rising number of places of worship – and worshippers – in southern China’s Guangdong province represented major positives, he said. “If you’re always talking about the negative side of the China church, this isn’t helping,” said Bishop Gan, who is also a vice secretary general of the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China, which is not recognized by the Vatican. Ordained in 2007 and recognized by both the Chinese government and the Vatican, Bishop Gan was described as “politically savvy” by the US consul-general in a leaked July 2008 cable, “someone capable of both walking a tightrope between Rome and Beijing as well as finding ways to get his message [across] without a backlash from the very conservative political and religious establishment in south China.” However, not all close observers of Sino-Vatican relations share Bishop Gan's positive views. In recent years, Bob Fu, the exiled Chinese head of the Texas-based non-profit group China Aid, has been among China’s strongest critics over its record on religious rights and has raised awareness of persecution of unregistered Protestant churches and pastors behind bars. He acknowledged that “positive things” had happened in China on religious freedom in the past 30 years. However, “I do not think the fundamental situation and government policy has changed much,” he said. Fu noted that the government in Beijing still does not recognize that there is any persecution of Christians in China.
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“I think generally the international discourse is much more balanced than the domestic [discourse on religion] in China,” he said.