02/22/2008, 00.00
VATICAN - CHINA
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China-Vatican relations, smoke and mirrors over the Olympics

by Bernardo Cervellera
Rumours of improved relations and invitations for the Olympics seem to be a publicity campaign aimed at concealing Beijing's embarrassment after Steven Spielberg withdrew from working for the Olympics. But there's also more: hesitation among the leaders of the office of religious affairs, and on the part of the vice-president of the patriotic association.

Rome (AsiaNews) - Rumours are continuing to circulate of an imminent improvement in relations between China and the Vatican, to the point of allowing conjecture of a visit by Benedict XVI to Beijing, perhaps for the Olympics.  The Chinese sources cited for these speculations are no less than the director of the state administration for religious affairs, Ye Xiaowen, and the vice-president of the Patriotic Association for Catholics, Anthony Liu Bainian.  During his visit to Washington, Ye said that "the distance between the two sides is getting shorter and shorter"; Liu is quoted as having said often that he dreams of the pope celebrating Mass in Beijing.

But Vatican officials contacted by AsiaNews confirm that there are no great signs of improvement in relations on the horizon, nor of greater religious freedom in the country.  At least two bishops of the unauthorised Church (James Su Zhimin of Baoding and Cosma Shi Enxiang of Yixian) and one of the official Church (Martin Wu Qinjing of Zhouzhi) disappeared in the hands of the police, 11, 6, and one year ago respectively.  Then there are the underground bishops in forced isolation, the official bishops under surveillance, the bishops who died in prison, and priests condemned to concentration camps . . . An anonymous Vatican official rightly declared two days ago to Reuters: "If we don't arrive at a decent level of religious freedom, what can the pope do in Beijing?"

The question that we pose is this: How in the world is it that so much "good news" is produced on relations between China and the Holy See, to the point that even in the Chinese restaurants there is talk of the "upcoming visit of the pope to China"?

We put the question to our sources in China.  The replies are very significant: the strong emphasis on rapprochement between China and the Vatican began a few days after the moral rebuke Beijing received through Steven Spielberg's refusal to participate in the preparation for the Olympics.

Putting the Vatican in the middle and accenting improvements is a way to distract attention from the international condemnation of China's activities in Darfur, which amounts to branding it again as a pariah state in regard to human rights.  Circulating the rumours that the pope is ready to go to Beijing for the Olympics or that there has been a diplomatic thaw is an attempt to take shelter under a moral umbrella, away from the downpour of criticism that accuses China of rigidity, of changing nothing, above all in regard to human rights.

As for the conjectures of Ye and Liu Bainian, these seem to be an extreme attempt to save themselves from an imminent purge in the patriotic associations and at the ministry of religious affairs. Both Ye and Liu have for decades been at the head of the organisations for the control of the religions and of the Catholic Church.  And they are now also in the crosshairs of their organisations' members themselves, because they have been in office longer than the president of the People's Republic of China (6 years) and also because in recent years they have continued to raise tensions in China and in relations with the Vatican.

Last summer, Liu himself conducted a campaign against the letter from Benedict XVI to the Chinese Catholics, accusing him of "ignorance" and of wanting to bring the Church in China back to a situation of "colonialism". Ye, on the other hand, continues to defend the "independence" of the Chinese Church, against the "interference" of the Holy See in the appointment of bishops.

It is likely that relations between China and the Vatican will improve.  But this may come only after these two officials have gone into retirement.

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