Rome (AsiaNews) - Five days from the Beijing Games, Benedict XVI "blessed" the Olympics and its host country; in the meantime, many international Catholic websites (including those of Vatican Radio, the diocese of Hong Kong, and AsiaNews) remain blocked, and a number of bishops and priests are in prison.
At today's Angelus, in the church square of Bressanone, where he is on vacation, the pontiff expressed his hope that the "great sporting encounter" of the Beijing Olympics "may offer to the international community a valid example of coexistence among persons of the most varied origin, in respect of common dignity. May sports once again be a pledge of fraternity and peace among peoples". And he said he was "happy to address to the host country, to the organizers and participants, in the first place to the athletes", his "cordial greetings".
Benedict XVI used similar words of greeting and good wishes last May 7, after the famous concert performed at the Vatican by the Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra. Many spontaneously wonder whether, behind the pope's "caress" of Beijing, there have been significant strides toward diplomatic relations between the Holy See and China. Some time ago, a few of the Hong Kong newspapers ran stories that there would be an exchange of ambassadors during the Games.
Catholic websites blocked
The situation on the ground to does not allow this kind of optimism. In recent days, the foreign journalists in Beijing have criticized Chinese censorship of websites, and accused the International Olympic Committee of complicity. Thanks to pressure from the entire world, China has relaxed the restrictions, allowing members of the foreign media to connect to the BBC, Amnesty International, and the Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily. But - as is well known - the elimination of censorship applies only to the Olympic Village, and not to all of China. Moreover, according to information obtained by AsiaNews, various international Catholic websites remain blocked. These include the websites of Vatican Radio (www.radiovaticana.org), the diocese of Hong Kong (www.catholic.org.hk), the Jesuits of Macau and Hong Kong (www.jesuitas.org.hk), the foreign missions of Paris to Singapore (www.zhonglian.org), the Korean Church (www.chonjinam.or.kr), AsiaNews (www.asianews.it), and a Catholic website in Malaysia (www.evland.com/bbs).
Bishops and priests disappeared, or under arrest
There are also problems on the front of actual religious freedom. The Chinese press is reporting that everyone at the Olympic Village will be given a book of the Gospels and a bible in Chinese and English; but just two months ago, the pilgrimage to Sheshan was banned in all the dioceses of China (except for the diocese of Shanghai).
Attention has also been given to the news that the official coadjutor bishop of Tangshan (Hebei), Bishop Peter Fang Jianping, has been chosen to carry the Olympic torch on its journey toward Beijing. But it is in Hebei that the most violent cases of religious persecution have been seen:
- Bishop James Su Zhimin (diocese of Baoding, Hebei), 74, was arrested in 1996 and has not been heard from since. In November of 2003, he was seen under police surveillance at the hospital of Baoding, where he received care for his heart and his eyes. But he disappeared again after a few days;
- Bishop Cosmas Shi Enxiang (diocese of Yixian, Hebei), 85, was arrested on April 13, 2001, and disappeared. Bishop Shi was ordained a bishop in 1982. He had been in prison for 30 years. The last time, he was arrested in December of 1990, and released in 1993. Since then, he was living under forced isolation until his latest arrest;
- At least eight priests of Hebei are under arrest, in prison or the work camps. They include the administrator of the diocese of Baoding, Fr Joseph Lu Genjun, 47, who was arrested on February 18, 2006, together with Fr Paul Huo Junlong, 52. Both are detained in unknown locations, without any trial or specific accusations.
To these cases must be added those of house arrest, and the inability to exercise their ministry on the part of dozens of underground bishops.
It is true that in this pre-Olympic period, many underground communities seem to be enjoying a strange sort of freedom: they are able to celebrate Mass publicly without any arrests; there have been no illicit ordinations supported by the Party but not by the Vatican. The impression, however, is that these gestures are dictated more by the concern for preserving tranquility during the Olympics, in front of the international community, than by a real change in China's religious policy.
In fact, it seems that there is a sort of schizophrenia in the Beijing leadership, between those who want diplomatic relations with the Holy See and those who, according to Stalinist and Confucian tradition, do not admit any religious expression outside of government control.
The main representative of this sickness is Ye Xiaowen, director of the state administration for religious affairs. Last February, Ye Xiaowen, on a visit to Washington, talked about the signs of hope between China and the Vatican. One month later, in an interview with a Chinese newspaper, he returned to the old Maoist accusations against the pope, calling the Vatican two-faced and saying it was necessary to boost the patriotism of the bishops and the Church .
Curiously, rumors and signals of progress in relations between China and the Vatican emerge from the Chinese above all at critical moments for Beijing's international image. So, after Steven Spielberg refused to participate in preparations for the Olympics, there were the positive statements from Ye; after the repression in Tibet, news came that there would be a concert of the Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra at the Vatican (May 7): relaxation of tensions with the Vatican seems to be the publicity card to play at critical moments, for the sake of being accepted by the international community, precisely when it is speaking out the loudest against China.
On the part of the Vatican, there is openness and the hope that all of these signs may lead to a good final result. It must be said that if Vatican diplomacy seems to accept a passive role of acceptance - and sometimes of silence - this is not true of Benedict XVI, who is still waiting for an official reply to his letter sent to the Chinese Catholics last year.
One must wait until the Games are over to see the direction in which the Beijing government wants to move. The occasion may be the synod of bishops, scheduled for October 2008 in Rome, to which - in all likelihood - Benedict XVI will invite some of the Chinese bishops. In 2005, at the synod on the Eucharist, he had invited for bishops from China, but the government did not give any of them permission to leave the country to go to Rome.
 Cf. AsiaNews.it, 22/2/2008 and 21/3/2008.