This Week in Asia

The Pope has a China dream, and burning Bibles won't get in the way

A major announcement could come as soon as this month or next. This can only mean that, having been kicked out of newly established Communist China in 1951, the Holy See is getting ready to abandon its nunciature (the equivalent of an embassy for the Vatican) in Taipei, to switch allegiance to Beijing, in spite of mainland China being in the midst of one of its most severe anti-religious campaigns in recent memory.

The unconfirmed reports that have been allowed to filter out so far do not clarify anything much, and have even added a level of confusion. Some sources from Taiwan, whose claims were transmitted to the media by Taiwan's foreign ministry spokesman, Andrew Lee, said the development would not have "diplomatic or political connotations". But mainland China does not allow anybody, no matter how holy, to maintain an embassy " or a nunciature " in both Taipei and Beijing.

A statue of Jesus at the government-sanctioned Catholic cathedral in Jiaozuo, central Henan. Photo: AFP

The agreement, according to what is known so far, would start by addressing the problem of who gets to nominate the bishops. According to the Catholic Church, which is headed by the Pope, this is a job for the Holy Father. According to the Chinese Communist Party, however, this task has to be done by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, an organisation established in China in 1957 to supervise China's Catholics (presently estimated at 12 million). Through the years, a number of bishops in China have been approved by both the Vatican and the Patriotic Association, with the exception of seven, more problematic ones, active in China but outside the Roman church's benediction. The deal may include a final recognition of these seven.

The ruins of a Catholic church, demolished to make way for a commercial development, in Puyang, central Henan province. Photo: AFP

Of all the times to be undergoing such a rapprochement, this may seem the least likely one. It is not only Muslim Uygurs in Xinjiang who are being discouraged from their religious inclinations but Christians nationwide, too, are seeing a stern turning back of some of the religious freedoms many had been taking for granted. Crosses are being taken down from many churches with renewed vehemence, churches themselves are being shut down, and there have been reports of Bibles being burned in public in Henan province.

While the crackdown is hitting mostly Christians from independent churches (numbering around 40 to 50 million), and not Catholics, the sight of burning Bibles should be of concern to the Pope. Nonetheless, at least two Catholic churches have been demolished recently. One, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, built in 1903 and a popular pilgrimage site for Chinese Catholics in Henan, was torn down in June. A second one in Liangwang, Jinan, built in the 1920s and operating as a "house church", was bulldozed in August, without prior warning.

This is not happening in a vacuum, but as part of President Xi Jinping's renewed emphasis on Communist discipline and ideology, which has seen stronger controls also on non-Uygur Muslims and Buddhists. Last month, the Grand Mosque in Weizhou, Ningxia, was the scene of a tense stand-off between the faithful and the police, who had threatened to tear down parts of it.

People close to the Vatican, however, say Pope Francis, a Jesuit from Argentina born Mario Bergoglio, has not been swayed by Xi's intensified ideological bent, or by the growing anti-religious repression. His China dream is a long-held one, and most bishops and cardinals who have tried to dissuade the Pope from a hasty deal with the authorities in Beijing have been sidelined, according to confidential sources.

The Pope sent President Xi Jinping a public greeting after the papal plane was allowed to fly over China for the first time four years ago. Photo: Xinhua

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2018. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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