Saturday, October 07, 2006
Rome vs China
BEIJING A senior official in China's state-backed Catholic church said Friday that religious conflicts with the Vatican could be addressed only after the Vatican established diplomatic relations with Beijing. Liu Bainian, vice chairman of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, called on the Vatican to change its policies toward the Chinese government before seeking a role in religious affairs. "Once the relationship between the Chinese government and the Vatican improves, the church issues can be resolved," Liu said by telephone. Liu's comments were the first official response since the Vatican lashed out Thursday against the state-controlled Chinese church's ordination of two bishops without papal consent. The remarks added further gloom to a relationship that earlier this year seemed on the verge of improvement after decades of estrangement. The election of Pope Benedict XVI a year ago had raised hopes that the Holy See and Beijing would establish official ties severed since Mao Zedong expelled the papal nuncio in 1951, two years after the Communist takeover on the mainland. The Vatican's foreign minister had confirmed that it was ready to move its embassy from Taiwan, saying the "time is ripe" for the two sides to establish diplomatic relations. Yet the tit-for-tat moves by China and the Vatican seemed designed to apply the brakes to the accelerating process of reconciliation, religious experts said. "Relations seemed to be really good and it looked like there was growing consensus between the two sides," said Yang Huilin, director of the Institute for the Study of Christian Culture at Renmin University in Beijing. "I am really surprised." Yang said there had been substantial progress on some of the major sticking points over the past year. In addition to giving ground on the Taiwan issue, the Vatican was also reviewing and softening a previously harsh official assessment of religious freedom in China, Yang said. "Maybe the Vatican side does not think now is the perfect time to build a formal relationship with China," he said. On China's side, officials in the state- backed Catholic church wanted to slow the process down, said Jean-Paul Wiest, a Beijing-based expert on the Catholic church in China. On top of that, there is lingering anger over the Vatican's appointment of Hong Kong's Joseph Zen, an outspoken defender of human rights, to cardinal. Zen's elevation was described by patriotic association, as a move by the Vatican to undermine the Chinese regime. The ordination of the bishops - Ma Yinglin in the city of Kunming on Sunday and Liu Xinhong in the city of Wuhu on Wednesday - broke with a low-key practice in recent years in which the Vatican and Beijing settle on candidates through back-channel communications. As to who in China's hierarchy decided to snub the Vatican, the religious experts disagreed. Weist said the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association is "given a lot of leeway" to decide who gets ordained. But Yang said that major church decisions had to be cleared with the central government.