Updated: January 05, 2023 11:29 AM GMT
Catholic worshippers attend a Mass on Holy Saturday, part of Easter celebrations, at a Catholic church in a village near Beijing on April 3, 2021. (Photo: AFP)
The decision by the Vatican to announce the renewal of its secret agreement with Beijing on the Feast of St. John Paul II just over a week ago was perhaps the biggest insult of all. It was almost as if the proponents of the dodgy deal wanted to repudiate the great pontiff who had played such a central role in the fight against communism and made such a significant contribution to the fall of the Soviet Union. In contrast to his legacy, the current Vatican seems intent on kowtowing to and becoming a tool of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime in Beijing.
The timing of the renewal could not have been worse. It coincided with the CCP’s 20th Party Congress, which gave Xi Jinping an unprecedented third term and sealed his cult-like grip on the country. And in a shocking scene, his predecessor as General Secretary of the CCP and President of China, Hu Jintao, was dragged out of the Congress in full view of the cameras and under Xi’s impassive watchful gaze.
The Vatican’s deal was also renewed exactly one week after the Chinese Consul-General in Manchester was filmed, along with some of his colleagues from the consulate, assaulting peaceful Hong Kong protesters on the street outside. One man, Bob Chan, was dragged into the consulate, where the Consul General, Zheng Xiyuan, himself pulled his hair, while another thug poked his fingers into Chan’s eyes and others beat him severely. Zheng later admitted his actions in a television interview, claiming it was his “duty” to pull the protester’s hair in retribution for “insulting” Xi Jinping. When I met Chan three days later he was still seriously bruised and unable to sit down without severe pain.
"If the details of the agreement were transparent and the gains more obvious, perhaps some of the Vatican’s compromises might be more understandable"
And in the biggest betrayal of all, the Vatican has renewed this agreement just as one of the Church’s most senior and most respected cardinals, the 90-year-old Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong Joseph Zen, goes on trial, and as prominent Hong Kong Catholic Jimmy Lai, who has already spent two years in prison, faces multiple court cases and the prospect of many more years behind bars.
Yet Pope Francis refused to meet Cardinal Zen last time he visited Rome two years ago, the Vatican’s reaction to his arrest earlier this year was, to put it politely, limp and lackluster, and not a word has been said by the Vatican about Lai’s plight.
If the details of the agreement were transparent and the gains more obvious, perhaps some of the Vatican’s compromises might be more understandable. But this deal, first agreed by the Vatican and China four years ago, has now been renewed for the second time with seemingly no scrutiny, review or transparency — and far from improving conditions for the Church in China, it has resulted in worsening repression and persecution.
The only detail we know about the agreement itself is that it relates to the appointment of Catholic bishops in China and gives the CCP a say in picking them. Yet so far only six new bishops have been appointed, according to the Vatican’s Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, leaving at least 40 vacancies to fill. Many underground bishops and priests remain in prison or under house arrest.
A precondition — both for the original agreement and for its renewal — ought to have been the release of clergy in prison, but it does not appear that the Vatican made that demand, or if it did it failed to secure it. Indeed, the Vatican insisted that some underground bishops who had been courageously loyal to Rome for decades stand down in favor of Beijing’s preferred candidates.
The only winners from this deal are Xi Jinping and the CCP. Not only have they strengthened the repression of the Church in China, but they have also extended their control into the heart of the Vatican itself. Pope Francis is not usually a pontiff who shies away from speaking about injustice. Typically, every Sunday when he prays the Angelus from his window above St. Peter’s Square in Rome, and on plenty of other occasions too, he speaks about one issue of injustice, persecution or conflict or another. To his great credit, he has spoken out several times against the repression in Myanmar as a whole and the genocide of the Rohingyas in particular, as well as Yemen, Syria, and the persecution of Christians and Yazidis in the Middle East.
"Xi’s regime has intensified the crackdown on Christians, leading to the worst persecution in China since the Cultural Revolution"
The one part of the world about which he has been conspicuously silent is China. Whether it is the genocide of the Uyghurs, atrocities in Tibet, the dismantling of Hong Kong’s freedoms in violation of an international treaty, the crackdown on civil society, lawyers, bloggers and dissidents throughout China, the threats to Taiwan or the persecution of Christians in China, Pope Francis has said almost nothing. It appears that Beijing has bought the Pope’s silence.
Yet despite the Vatican’s sell-out, it has received nothing in return. Pope Francis insists on the pursuit of dialogue, naively thinking he can build a relationship with Xi Jinping of the kind his 16th-century Jesuit inspiration, Matteo Ricci, had with the Chinese imperial court. But Xi rebuffed the pope’s invitation to meet when they were both in Kazakhstan last month.
Over the past decade, Xi’s regime has intensified the crackdown on Christians, leading to the worst persecution in China since the Cultural Revolution. Hundreds of churches have been destroyed, and thousands of crosses torn down. In state-controlled official churches, portraits of Xi and CCP propaganda banners are required to be on display alongside — or even instead of — religious statues and images. Surveillance cameras record every worshipper in attendance, and under-18s are banned from places of worship. The Vatican’s deal with the CCP has not changed the persecution, it has helped facilitate it.
Among fellow Catholics whom I talk to, I have yet to find one who enthusiastically supports or defends the Vatican’s deal with China, and none who can really explain it. It is baffling that the Vatican has sold out to Beijing, and has made no attempt to listen to critics of its approach. The time has come for Catholics — clergy and laity — around the world to cry out in very large numbers to Pope Francis on behalf of the persecuted millions suffering at the hands of the CCP, and demand to be heard.
The Vatican should, even at this very late stage, completely review its approach. It should start by lifting the veil on the text of the agreement, and publishing it in full so that we can all see what is in it. It should then begin a dialogue, not with Beijing but with Catholics, in China and around the world, as well as with representatives of other Christians in China, the Uyghurs, Tibetans, the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and Taiwan (with whom the Holy See is still one of the few states to maintain diplomatic relations).
At the very least, if Pope Francis is to recover the moral authority of the papacy on these issues, he must end his silence on the CCP’s atrocities. Even if it is too late to change the deal for now, until it is up for renewal again, it is never too late to speak out against evil and injustice. Doing a deal with the devil is bad enough, but as the old saying goes, if you are going to dine with the devil, you should use a very long spoon. Being complicit with the devil’s schemes, spreading the devil’s lies and staying silent in the face of the devil’s crimes is too high a price for the Vatican to pay.
*Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is Senior Analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organization, the co-founder and chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, co-founder and deputy chair of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and a board member of the Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign. He is the author of six books, and his faith journey is told in his book “From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church” (Gracewing, 2015). His new book, “The China Nexus: Thirty Years In and Around the Chinese Communist Party’s Tyranny”, was launched last week by Optimum Publishing International. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.
The real backbone of the Church in Asia (and the rest of the world, for that matter) is Christian mothers. We have brought this series on the Catholic Church’s unsung heroines to you FREE.