Taiwan is not the obstacle to Sino-Vatican relations. The main impediment to the two countries establishing diplomatic ties is China's disrespect for its people's religious freedom. In particular, Beijing's unilateral appointment of Catholic bishops has highlighted China's unwillingness to give up its political control of religion.
Last week, China's state-controlled Catholic Church -- the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association -- appointed Ma Yinglin (馬英林) and Liu Xinhong (劉新紅) as bishops without papal consent. In response to the appointments, Pope Benedict XVI issued a tough statement, condemning the appointments and the violation of religious freedom they represented. He also declared that the two new bishops as well as the two other bishops who carried out the ordinations would be excommunicated. This decline in Sino-Vatican relations means that the establishment of diplomatic ties is off the agenda for the foreseeable future.
For the sake of China's 12 million Catholics, the Vatican has been negotiating with Beijing over the establishment of ties ever since Pope Benedict took up his post last year. During this period, rumors proliferated that the Vatican was planning to sever ties with Taiwan in favor of China. Although Taiwan cherishes its long-term friendship with the Holy See, it understands the Vatican's concern for the Chinese Catholics, who are in more need of the Church's care.
However, millions of Taiwanese Catholics also deserve the Church's attention. There may be far fewer Catholics in Taiwan than in China, but they should all be treated with equal importance by the Church. The Vatican has a responsibility to come up with a plan that protects the interests of Catholics in both places.
China has set two conditions for normalizing ties with the Vatican: that the Holy See sever ties with Taiwan, and that it must not interfere in China's domestic affairs, including the appointment of Chinese bishops. When China ignores the Vatican and appoints bishops independently, it highlights the fundamental difficulties involved in bringing the two sides together.
In a recent report published by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, China was listed as one of the world's worst violators of religious freedom. There are two aspects to religious freedom: respect for the individual's freedom of belief, and respect for the freedom of religious systems or cultures. Sadly, China respects neither.
Although China's economy continues to grow, the increasing gap between rich and poor is leading to economic and social conflict. China's history is full of examples of social turmoil in the name of religion, and this is generating an increasing fear of religion within the Chinese government. Be it Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, Protestants, Catholics or Falun Gong followers, all people of faith are becoming targets for the government's suppression, both domestically and overseas. The Falun Gong follower Wang Wenyi (
It is clear that China is intervening in religious affairs and lacks respect for the inner workings of religious systems. In the case of Tibetan Buddhists, China has long blocked the return of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Trampling all over Tibetan Buddhist traditions, the government chose its own candidate for Panchen Lama as a way to control Tibet. It is continuing to apply the same methods to Catholicism by ignoring the Vatican and appointing its own bishops.