10/01/2005, 00.00
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Beijing's "no" shatters the illusion that something has changed

by Bernardo Cervellera
But with his invitation to the 4 bishops, Benedict XVI has succeeded in reinforcing the sense of unity among all Chinese Catholics.

Vatican City (AsiaNews) - The news that the bishops invited by Benedict XVI will almost certainly not be able to come to Rome has cast much sorrow over the Vatican.  One source even said, "We have been deceived." 

The Secretariat of State had been preparing over the past year the visit of these bishops. Vatican officials had informed and worked with Beijing's embassy in Rome. A number of them had registered positive signals from the government. Even the invited bishops had said that the trip "was possible and worth attempting."  In approaching their respective local governments, they had received positive assurances. 

One Vatican official told AsiaNews that "Rome had some hope, that there was at least a 50% chance of a positive response.  But so far none of the bishops has received permission. It should be noted that there was no clear cut and outright refusal, as would have been the case some years ago. Everyone keeps saying that 'the channels of communication are still open' and maintains that the problem depends on the Vatican for having invited bishops who are too old, for having invited them without going through official channels." All these reasons, according to this same source, "seem more of a defensive smokescreen. If President Hu wants to send the 4 bishops, he has the power to do so very easily." 

Analysts of China/Vatican relations all agree on two points: first of all, international pressure is needed to persuade China: "this is the only kind of dialogue they know and are sensitive too. Without pressure, they accept nothing." 

The second point on which they agree is that in not allowing the bishops - yet again - to participate in the Synod, China's international image goes back to being that of a closed and obscurantist country, despite recent signals of détente vis-à-vis the Church -- which perhaps had been to make up for the poor figure it cut for being absent at John Paul II's funeral. 

The impression of other analysts is that of a settlement of scores within the government and the Patriotic Association. This explains the differing positions and awkwardness in setting a single line of conduct. 

Still, some Chinese bishops are drawing a positive conclusion from the whole affair: the invitation extended by Benedict XVI to official and unofficial bishops has reinforced the sense of unity within the Catholic Church in China and is bring about increased collaboration between communities. Another positive element is that the four bishops, having been under the international spotlight, are now being held in high esteem by local goverments: the message launched by the Pope, for which the invitation to the four bishops is a gesture of friendship and esteem towards the Chuch and the people of China, has hit the mark.

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