A secret agreement between the Vatican and Beijing is set to be renewed later this year as concerns grow over China’s rights record and its firm commitment to churches and clergy.
Pope Francis has led a year-long effort to build ties with authoritarian China and in 2018 Holy See reached a two-year agreement with Beijing.
What is the Vatican-China agreement?
The treaty allowed the Chinese communist government to nominate bishops for the pope’s approval, giving both sides a statement on church leadership.
In a keynote address, Pope Francis acknowledged eight Beijing-backed bishops who had been expelled earlier because they had been appointed without the pope’s approval.
The deal – the details of which have never been fully disclosed – was extended in 2020 and will be ready for review this October.
Why was the agreement made?
The 2018 interim agreement was an attempt to close the gap between China’s Catholic population, previously estimated at about 12 million.
China severed ties with the Holy See in 1951, forcing Catholics to choose between membership in the state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association or the underground churches loyal to the pope.
The Communist Party formally exercises strict control over atheists and all recognized religious institutions, in which sermons are verified.
Why the criticism?
While some have hailed the 2018 agreement as a realistic compromise enabling dialogue, others fear that China’s underground churches will become more marginalized.
Those who work without the blessings of the Communist Party say they have been targeted by authorities in recent years, pointing to the destruction of underground churches, the persecution of members and the pressure on their clergy to change sides.
The 2018 agreement was signed at a time when China was conducting massive captivity of Muslims in its far-western Xinjiang region, a campaign the United States and several Western legislatures have declared genocide.
Following the renewal of the agreement, a commentary in the Holy See’s official newspaper acknowledged “many situations of great suffering” in China, adding that the Vatican encourages “more fruitful practice of religious freedom.”
The United States opposed renewing the treaty in 2020, with then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying the Vatican would “jeopardize its moral authority.”
Another vocal critic was Cardinal Jane of Hong Kong, who accused the Vatican of “selling out” China’s underground Catholic community.
Jane was arrested this month in Hong Kong on national security charges. The allegations are not linked to criticism of his contract.
What are the restrictions on religion in China?
Under President Xi Jinping, Chinese authorities have cracked down on religious groups despite warm relations with the Vatican.
Xi has repeatedly called on foreign religions to tolerate “sinisization” by aligning their beliefs with Chinese culture and socialist ideology.
Underground Catholic clergy who refuse to comply with state demands have been the subject of “detention, surveillance and removal from active ministry” since the Vatican agreement, according to a report by China’s U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission this year.
In January 2021, Chinese authorities imposed new rules on the management of clergy, leaving two state-run agencies responsible for appointing bishops, with no mention of papal authority.
Sino-Vatican relations are also closely monitored in Taiwan, as the Holy See remains the only European ally to formally recognize the self-governing island.
China sees Taiwan as part of its territory, will one day be occupied by force if necessary, and has steadfastly persuaded Taipei’s diplomatic allies to change Beijing’s recognition.
(Except for the title, this story was not edited by NDTV staff and was published from a syndicated feed.)