Tue, Apr 03, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Division and confusion reign as historic China-Vatican deal looms

Even within the ‘underground’ church, reaction has been split, with some welcoming a rapprochement, while others worry about curbs on religious freedom

By James Pomfret  /  Reuters, YINGTAN, China

Illustration: Yusha

Like many Chinese Catholics, Lin Jinqing was shocked when news trickled through to him of an impending deal between Beijing and the Vatican that would end a long dispute over control of the Catholic Church in China.

As a member of a so-called “underground” church — one that is not sanctioned by Beijing — in the southeastern Jiangxi Province, Lin and fellow parishioners have for years been attending clandestine Bible readings and services.

In recent years, as Chinese authorities cracked down on underground services as part of broader restrictions on religious groups, he has also started attending services at state-sanctioned churches to avoid trouble.

“The pressure on underground church members has been quite big,” said Lin, who lives in Yingtan, a gritty city of 1million people in Jiangxi.

Now, the deal between China and the Vatican is worrying him.

“Many of us don’t know what to think,” he said.

He said that the underground churchgoers wanted more freedom to worship.

“But at what cost?” he said.

A senior Vatican source in February said that a framework accord was ready and could be signed in months. The expected deal would allow China to appoint bishops, in consultation with the Vatican, and eventually could lead to the restoration of full diplomatic relations between the two sides for the first time in seven decades.

Until now, China and the Vatican have not recognized most bishops named by each other. Underground Catholics like Lin have stayed loyal to Vatican-appointed bishops — and the pope.

News of the impending deal has split communities of Catholics across China, according to some critics like retired Cardinal Joseph Zen (陳日君) in Hong Kong.

Some fear greater suppression should the Vatican cede greater control to Beijing, but others want to see rapprochement.

“We hope for an early establishment of ties. It will definitely bring advantageous policies and greater openness to the church,” Father Pan Yinbao (潘銀保), a priest affiliated with the official church in Yingtan, said in an interview. “There is a need for change. There is a need for adjustment.”

Lin’s apprehensions are echoed in WeChat groups used by Catholics, and the few uncensored religious news sites still viewable in China like www.tianzhujiao.life — as is cautious criticism.

“Churchgoers stay hopeful on the Vatican-China deal, but no one wants to live in a bird cage or only fighting for a larger space in the bird cage,” one post by a blogger named Priest Shanren said. “People are born to be free.”

The Chinese Communist Party has long sought to control organized groups, including religious ones, whose devotees can only worship under the auspices of state-sanctioned bodies like the Catholic Patriotic Association.

Of the 146 bishops now in China, about a third are affiliated with the underground church.

A source close to the Vatican based in Hong Kong said that there would be a tightening of religious freedoms following a restructuring of China’s religious affairs authority this year, to bring it directly under party, rather than state control.

A Chinese government statement explaining the move said it would help China “steadfastly persevere in the direction of Sinicizing our country’s religions.”

Last week, Guo Xijin (郭希錦), a bishop in China’s Fujian Province, was detained by authorities for refusing to officiate Easter services with an official bishop.

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