Aerial view of a Catholic church in Qingdao city, east China's Shandong province. Photo: AFP / Zhao Jianpeng / Imaginechina

A September 2018 agreement between China and the Vatican on selecting Roman Catholic bishops in China may not be as historic as it was described when announced.

The way the government of President Xi Jinping views it, nothing really changed.

The accord was supposed to end decades of disagreement between the church and Beijing by making the appointment of bishops a joint decision of the Pope and Chinese authorities. A few days after the accord was reached, the Pope declared the agreement a breakthrough. He told reporters: “What is there is a dialogue on potential candidates, but Rome nominates, the Pope nominates, that’s clear.”

Instead, regulations issued this month by China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs make no mention of a papal role. Only state agencies, including the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, are involved.

This appears to be a direct slap at Pope Francis, who extended the agreement last September for another two years. The Vatican has yet to react to the latest news from Beijing.

Beijing and the Vatican have kept the 2018 pact’s details secret, but Catholic critics characterized the notion of shared responsibility as a betrayal of the hundreds of thousands of “underground church” members who remained faithful to the Pope’s right to appoint bishops and run the church independently.

In a 2019 letter to the Vatican, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun, a former bishop of Hong Kong, called the plans the “killing of the church in China by those who should protect it and defend it from enemies.”  

Cardinal Joseph Zen, former Bishop of Hong Kong, speaks during a press conference at the Salesian House of Studies in Hong Kong on September 26, 2018, following the Vatican announcement on September 22 of an historic accord with China on the appointment of bishops in the Communist country. Photo: AFP/Anthony Wallace

Zen and other critics fear that the agreement, with the Pope’s imprimatur, puts pressure on underground believers to join the official Patriotic Church as an act in line with Francis’s wishes. It would, critics say, place their worship in the service of China’s Communist Party ideology.

The just-issued religious regulations put mechanisms in place to subsume Catholic worship into official Communist Party interests. It orders all clergy to “love the motherland, support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, support the socialist system.” Anyone who enters a church is monitored “through strict gatekeeping, verification of identity, and registration.”

“The agreement was a pretext, was an instrument in the hands of the government to persecute the church,” Zen told an Indian radio station last November.

The 2018 accord created concern in Hong Kong that Beijing may demand control of the Catholic churches there. Francis has yet to remark on the democracy protests and subsequent crackdown in Hong Kong nor the jailing of protest leaders, some of whom are Catholic.

The deal placed a chill on pro-democracy preachers. Bishop John Hon Tong, now in charge of the Hong Kong diocese, cautioned priests to be prudent in their sermons so as not to run afoul of the new National Security Law imposed by Beijing. The law, among other things, curbs acts that might undermine central government authority.

Taiwan, which has diplomatic relations with the Vatican State, viewed the accord as a means to further isolate the island from the global community and perhaps as a step toward transferring the papal nuncio – effectively the Holy See’s ambassador – from Taipei to Beijing.

The new set of regulations, some of which relate to other religions, comes in the context of systematic crackdowns on the five religious groupings officially sanctioned by China: the Buddhist Association of China, the Chinese Daoist Association, the Islamic Association of China, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and the Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement – whose three selves refer not to the Holy Trinity but to the principles of self-governance, self-support (meaning financial independence from foreigners), and self-propagation (meaning indigenous missionary work only).

The most severe crackdown involves the roundup and incarceration of hundreds of thousands of Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic group from northwest China, into re-education concentration camps, and the destruction of mosques in Xinjiang province.

The US State department, under previous President Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden, has labeled China’s treatment of Uighurs as genocide. Late last year, Pope Francis declared the Uighurs “persecuted.”

Acknowledging uneasiness over the pact, the Vatican secretary of state, Monsignor Cardinal Pietro Parolin, suggested that Vatican-Beijing rapprochement is a work in progress. On January 29, he told KTOTV, a French Catholic TV outlet, that the 2018 accord, “is just a small step from which one can begin to seek to improve the situation of the church. So, there is no claim that this is the last word. I compare this agreement to the little seed that penetrates the ground.”

A Chinese Catholic minister gives morning mass in 2000 at a state-approved Catholic church in central Beijing, where five bishops were later ordained during a special service. The five were ordained by the head of the official Chinese Catholic Bishops College, two more than first announced, at a ceremony held in defiance of the Vatican’s wishes. Photo: AFP / Steven Shaver

The seeds have yet to bear much fruit. Only two bishops have been named under the new accord. Meanwhile, even though the Vatican canceled the excommunications of seven Patriotic Church prelates, more than two dozen bishops of the underground church remain formally illegal and await their fate at the hands of the government.

Estimates of the numbers of Chinese who belong to the underground church range from three million to 12 million. Its members have been subject to repression, even during the two-year run of the agreement.

A pair of nuns who traveled from Hong Kong to the mainland were detained last May and remain under house arrest. In the southeastern district of Yujiang non-officially authorized priests have been told not to oversee worship and the bishop there was prohibited from celebrating Mass.

In a report last spring, Human Rights Watch listed an array of incidents of intimidation: the disappearance of a bishop in the coastal city of Wenzhou for a week; detention of a former bishop in Fujian after he refused to join his flock in the Patriotic Church; the closing of churches in Mindong, Fujian province, and the eviction of priests there for refusing Patriotic Church control.

HRW noted that: “Authorities in recent years have demolished hundreds of church buildings or the crosses atop them, prevented believers from gathering in house churches, confiscated Bibles and other religious materials, and banned online Bible sales.”

Even dead Catholics are not beyond the reach of official punishment if they failed to follow government dictates during their lifetime.

Take the cases of two centenarian bishops who died recently.

One, Bishop Joseph Zong Huaide, who died in January, was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution and spent 14 years in a forced labor camp. Freed in 1980, he resumed life as a priest and then was secretly ordained as an underground bishop in Shaanxi province.

In 1992, he asked to join the Patriotic Church and was accepted. In advance of his public burial, his body was exposed for five days’ viewing, according to the Vatican’s Fides news agency.

No such commemoration was allowed Monsignor Andrew Han Jingtao, who died in late December. He had spent 27 years in a forced labor camp during his priesthood and was released in 1980. Two years later, Han was secretly ordained a bishop of the Catholic underground community in Siping, Jilin province. During the last years of his life, police kept a tight watch on him, according to Fides.

As for Han’s funeral, “neither fellow clergymen nor followers were allowed to attend,” Fides reported. “Thanks to the urgent requests of the members of his family, the local authorities allowed the ashes of the Bishop to be placed in the cemetery of his native village.

“No religious sign or title of Bishop is present on his tombstone.”

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.