07/04/2005, 00.00

Beijing and the Vatican: small steps and religious freedom

by Di Bernardo Cervellera

News is arriving from many quarters of improved relations and positive signals between Beijing and the Holy See. One of the most comforting is the episcopal ordination last June 28 of Shanghai's new auxiliary bishop, Monsignor Joseph Xing Wenzhi, age 42: the newly-consecrated bishop said publicly that his nomination was approved by the Holy See.  Eventually, Msgr Xing could take the place of Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian, who has almost reached the age of 90 and is very ill.  The new auxiliary studied in the United States, and prior to his ordination, had been the diocese's vicar general.

With this gesture, the Chinese government hopes to heal the rift that exists between the unofficial, underground Church and the official Church, recognized by and registered with the government.  Bishop Xing's ordination is a step forward towards repairing relations but, by establishing a single reference point for both the official and underground communities, it has an even greater importance.

This gesture also represents a gain for the Vatican, since Beijing finally recognizes that the Holy See's relations with a bishop does not constitute undue interference in internal affairs and does not undermine the state's security.  Msgr Xing is a young, well-prepared man.  Bishop Jin himself said that there is "nothing left to teach him": his age and his preparation give reason to hope that episcopal efforts, in a diocese among those most threatened by the spread of secolarism and by the Middle Kingdom's "gold rush", will be able to bear fruit.

The question of religious freedom in China, however, remains an open one and it is still not yet known how much freedom the government will effectively guarantee to the new bishop.  The Shanghai ordination is one of several signals, arriving also from the Vatican's part, which indicate that something is happening in the world of China.  Particularly noteworthy is a statement by Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, the Holy See's Secretary for Relations with States who, upon his return June 22 from a series of visits in South-East Asia, said, "There are no insurmountable difficulties to establishing diplomatic ties between the Holy See and the China.  The establishment of diplomatic relations with China has been under consideration for some time."  Even the Catholic bishop of Hong Kong, Msgr Joseph Zen stated on June 14 that the Holy See is "anxious" to enter into diplomatic relations with China.

All this certainly does not mean, however, that the way has been paved: from this point of view, what several magazines – even quite renowned – have claimed, i.e. that official protocols setting out diplomatic procedures have "already been prepared", is incorrect.  Some have stated, furthermore, that the Vatican "is ready" to leave Taiwan in order to please Beijing.  To support such a claim, it was incorrectly reported that, on the occasion of Pope John Paul II's funeral, the Vatican deliberately humiliated Chen Suibian, the island's president, relegating him to the back rows, with neither a translator nor a nameplate.  It would be enough to check any news coverage of the event itself to find that such claims are inexact.

We at AsiaNews are happy that there are positive signs, but we would also like to bring to mind that any talks or step towards diplomatic ties must not overlook the situation of many bishops and priests still in prison.  It is to be hoped that Beijing – among its first gestures of good will – free the bishops under house arrest and provide news on those who have disappeared, according to the list published by AsiaNews and that was echoed by authoritative international news organs.  This would be an excellent way for the Chinese government to give tangible proof of an earnest will to forge relations with the Holy See.

Moreover, Archbishop Lajolo himself, when defining difficulties related to the establishment of China/Vatican diplomatic ties as "not insurmountable", also said: "It is wrong to think that diplomatic relations can be created first and only afterwards address the question of religious freedom.  No one is moving in that sense. The Vatican must ensure that Beijing guarantees full and real freedom to religions."

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See also
Pope and Cardinals : Consensus on China
22/01/2007
Pope names 4 Chinese bishops as members of the Synod on the Eucharist
08/09/2005
Hong Kong Bishop says there is only one Church in China
12/10/2005
China: the Vatican denounces the arrest of bishop, priest and layperson
02/04/2005
Report: leader of unofficial church arrested as part of new crackdown
12/11/2004