06/27/2006, 00.00
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A Vatican delegation goes to Beijing

by Bernardo Cervellera

Lead by Archbishop Claudio Celli, the delegation will meet with the government.  This encounter comes at a time of particular tension, caused by the Patriotic Association and the Religious Affairs Bureau.

Rome (AsiaNews) – A Vatican delegation has been in Beijing since last Sunday to meet with various figures of the Chinese government.   Views vary among analysts on the significance of this visit, which will last until July 1st; the word is that the Vatican itself does not have high hopes as to what it can achieve, maintaining that it is nevertheless absolutely necessary to "keep doors open."

According to information available to AsiaNews, the Holy See's delegation consists of Archbishop Claudio Celli and Monsignor Gianfranco Rota Graziosi of the Secretariat of State.  Though not working in the Secretariat of State, Archbishop Celli has been for years an expert on relations between Rome and Beijing and is a veteran visitor to China.

News of a visit had come out two weeks ago, but proved to be false.  This time, the news has been confirmed to AsiaNews by sources in Beijing, Hong Kong and Rome.

The meeting of the Holy See's delegation with representatives of the Chinese government comes at a time of tension caused by the recent series of illicit episcopal ordinations, which the Vatican forcefully criticized as "an attack against religious freedom."

At the height of the crisis, the Chinese government continued to affirm that it was "sincerely open" to dialogue with the Vatican, making it understood that obstacles to dialogue – and the illicit ordinations themselves – were the doings of mid-level officials: in other words, the Patriotic Association and the Religious Affairs Bureau.

At the same time, Beijing repeated the refrain about pre-conditions to dialogue with the Holy See: that the Vatican break ties with Taiwan and refrain from interfering in China's internal affairs (including the ordination of bishops).  The Vatican has for years made it clear that dialogue must begin without preconditions and that, if the break with Taiwan is understandable, the Holy See cannot be expected to stand aside on the question of episcopal ordinations.

It has also become clear, from the beginning of Benedict XVI's pontificate, that the Vatican is seeking diplomatic relations as a means to full religious freedom from the Church.

Views differ among observes on how to evaluate the visit currently being carried out by the Vatican delegation.  For some it is "a step towards diplomatic relations"; for others it is "a good sign", but they don't expect much to come out of it.  Cardinal Joseph Zen, Bishop of Hong Kong, told the press that the visit "is a friendly gesture…but I do not expect the talks will progress very quickly."

Complicating matters is a long series of religious freedom violations: dozens of priests of the underground Church are in prison; bishops of the underground Church have been missing for years.  Even Monsignor Jia Zhiguo, unofficial Bishop of Zhengding, the liberation of whom had been announced weeks ago, is actually still in detention, guarded day and night by 6 policemen in the room of a Hebei hospital where he is receiving medical treatment.

The official Church, recognized by the government, also has its serious problems: AsiaNews sources in China have stated that various priests of Hebei, who have spoken against the policies of the Patriotic Association, were beaten during so-called political sessions. The official seminaries of Beijing and Shanghai have been subjected to checks by public security officials and to political sessions that aim to make seminarians accept the Party's religion policy.

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