Pope Francis loudly and roundly condemned the violent discrimination of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar during an audience in the Vatican State on February 8. The papal voice often reaches where words and actions of global and regional leaders fall short, and Asia is no exception. The Pope’s resoluteness in reaching out to persecuted Rohingyas, however, is not matched by an equally vigorous rebuttal of China’s repressive religious policy.

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The Holy See is revealing a double standard in dealing with religious and humanitarian problems whether they affect China or another Asian country. That differentiation of approaches is nothing new. The Roman Catholic Church is, in fact, a pragmatic actor in the world’s contemporary history, as was proven with its indirect (but key) role in the fall of the Soviet empire in the 1970s and 1980s.

Against a wall of indifference

Pope Francis’ tirade hit the wall of indifference that surrounds the Rohingya crisis in the West and received commendations from the Islamic community, with that of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif standing out among them.

In a report released on February 3, the United Nations Human Rights Office denounced the devastating cruelties perpetrated by Myanmese security forces against the Rohingya in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s democratic heroine and de facto civil leader in a political system still dominated by the military, is under fire from human rights activists, who accuse her of not doing enough to stop the aggression against the Rohingyas.

In raising the Rohingya issue, the Holy See is doing what the international community is reluctant to do. World powers are busy nurturing political and economic relations with Myanmar, which for many reasons has gained a certain geopolitical centrality in the East Asian balance of power. The Catholic Church is taking a considerable risk with its approach. In fact, Christian people are often oppressed in Myanmar, in particular in the eastern Kachin State, where the Myanmese army is fighting local ethnic armed militias.

On February 7, AsiaNews reported the recent arrest of two Kachin Christian pastors and the killing of a young Kachin Christian nurse. Nonetheless, critics could say that lashing out at a small country like Myanmar is relatively easy. Try that with a heavyweight like China, where Christian worshippers suffer many restrictions, too.

Bishops’ appointments in China

Dialogue between China and the Vatican on improving diplomatic relations would be a step forward, Hong Kong’s Cardinal John Tong Hon recently wrote. He explained that both parties would have reached a preliminary agreement on the episcopal ordinations in China – the Holy See lays claim to prelates’ appointment, as opposed to Beijing’s practice to chose its own bishops.

According to Cardinal Tong, a Sino-Vatican compromise should at least grant the Catholic Church in China an “essential” religious freedom, that is the Pope’s final say on bishops’ appointments, while postponing “complete” freedom – the prelates’ right to spread the Catholic faith; a position that reportedly worries part of the underground Catholics on the mainland. Loyal to the Pope rather than the Chinese Communist Party and its pseudo-religious offshoots, they fear that the Vatican would end up conceding too much in negotiations with Beijing.

Protecting the pope’s power of moral suasion

At first glance, the flaw in Tong’s reasoning is that a procedural freedom devoid of any real power of action, no matter how important it is in doctrinal terms, produces nothing of substance. Others argue that the Holy See’s diplomacy toward China is a long-term, incremental strategy that will yield results eventually.

While that is possible, the Vatican will have to handle with care this “soft realpolitik” if it does not want to lose credibility. Populist leaders are ready to blast the Catholic hierarchies if they stand in the way of their policies. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, for instance, recently got to the point of depicting his country’s bishops as corrupt people and sex abusers with “no moral ascendancy to criticize his narcotics crackdown”.

Thus, the inevitable flexibility that requires the managing of different situations like religious limitations in China and communal violence in Myanmar will have to be used in a way that does not dent Pope Francis’ power of moral suasion. His undeniable capacity of building religious and political bridges among nations and people is not only an asset for the Holy See but for the international community on the whole.

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.

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