Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Holy See’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, which is responsible for missionary activities, claimed on Saturday that the Sino-Vatican arrangement was of historical significance, but he admitted that he looked at the deal with some perplexity, just like many Chinese Catholics.
Recent events have indeed shown that the agreement’s conclusion has not stopped the Chinese government’s repression of Catholic prelates, priests and followers.
In the latest Christian drama in China, Catholic news agency Asia News reported on Friday that at least seven churches and their communities had been suppressed in recent months in the diocese of Qiqihar, in Heilongjiang province.
It is significant that the local bishop, Monsignor Giuseppe Wei Jingyi, is recognized by the Vatican, but not by Chinese authorities.
Two weeks ago a panel of experts painted a bleak picture of government-led persecutions of all religions during a conference on religious freedom in China held at the EU Parliament in Brussels.
In regard to Chinese Christians, Father Bernardo Cervellera, editor of Asia News, said on January 23 that the Chinese Communist Party had proclaimed a real religious war against them, “all in the name of security and nationalistic patriotism.”
Catholics in China particularly suffered hardships during Christmas festivities. Masses were monitored by the police, and young people under the age of 18 were prevented from taking part. Local authorities in Fujian, Hebei, Shaanxi and Yunnan provinces reportedly banned Christmas celebrations and decorations in some cases, because they were considered a Western attack on Chinese tradition and culture.
There has also been a problem of “forced vacations,” such as that of Monsignor Peter Shao Zhumin, bishop of Wenzhou in Zhejiang province, as well as political and ideological indoctrination of priests in different parts of the country.
Underground Catholic communities are a frequent target of the Chinese government’s crackdown on religious freedom. This “unofficial” church is loyal to the Pope and not recognized by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and the Chinese Catholic Bishop’s Conference – two state-sponsored entities now under the supervision of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central United Front Work Department.
However, Cervellera noted that both communities have actually suffered violations and were at risk of becoming extinct – the official organization because of the stifling control of the government and the Communist Party machine, the underground church from “arrests, disappearances, killings and destruction.”
Under the new Religious Affairs Regulation, which came into effect in February last year, the situation has become even worse for unofficial Catholic priests and believers. At the Brussels conference, it emerged that at least 30 Catholic churches were closed and destroyed in 2018.
Chinese authorities had already intensified their control of religious activities with the tightening of the country’s Criminal Law in 2015. Article 300 is often used to punish worshippers, according to humanitarian organizations.
Supporters of the interim agreement emphasize that the Pope is now formally recognized as head of the Catholic Church in China and that an actual process of reconciliation between the official and the underground communities is underway.
Some dispute this optimistic outlook, and talk instead of blackmail. Cervellera quoted an underground Chinese bishop as saying he was told by Pope Francis that China had threatened to ordain 45 bishops autonomously if the agreement was not inked. That would have set out the basis for a real schism, given that the Roman Church claims ecclesial appointments are the pontiff’s prerogative.
Still, during a symposium in Jiangsu province last December, an official from the Communist Party’s United Front reportedly urged local seminaries to step up ideological and political education against any attempt by foreign religious organizations and foreign powers – such as the Holy See – to interfere in the affairs of the Catholic Church in China.
Afraid of social chaos?
At a time when China is dealing with a complex foreign policy environment, with the United States under President Donald Trump challenging its rise as a global superpower, and the Chinese economy hit hard by the trade dispute, leaders in Beijing are trying to keep the social fabric of the country together.
In this respect, the control exerted by Chinese authorities over fast-growing religious groups seems to be only one piece of a wider strategy to propel further the centralization of power in the hands of President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party.
Taking into account the big picture, the chances of seeing religious freedom arise in China from the Sino-Vatican provisional deal look bleak, if not impossible.