BEIJING/VATICAN/TOKYO -- China signed a historic "provisional agreement" with the Vatican in Beijing about the appointment of bishops on Sept. 22, marking a major win for its "one China" goal. The Holy See is the only country in Europe with diplomatic ties with Taiwan, and its latest step may prompt other Christian countries to sever ties with Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province, and enhance ties with China.
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According to the Vatican, the Holy See now approves seven bishops ordained by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which is officially approved by the Chinese government.
Earlier reports by the Wall Street Journal and China's Global Times said that Beijing was to approve Pope Francisco as the head of the Catholic Church, while the Vatican would send a letter recognizing future candidate bishops selected by Beijing although the pope would retain veto power to deny their appointment.
This diplomatic breakthrough for China would erode the foundations of the pro-independence administration of President Tsai Ing Wen in Taipei. It may also help Beijing deflect criticism from the U.S. administration of President Donald Trump that China is persecuting its Muslim Uighurs.
Taiwan's foreign ministry issued a statement in response, saying, "The Holy See has reaffirmed to Taiwan that this provisional agreement is not of a political or diplomatic nature, and will not affect the diplomatic relationship that has been in place for 76 years between Taiwan and the Holy See." The statement added that Taiwan hopes "this accord will enhance religious freedom in China and allow the Chinese Catholic Church to become an integral part of the universal Church."
According to Taiwanese media, Vice President Chen Chien-jien will visit the Vatican in mid-October and try to retain Taipei's diplomatic ties with the Holy See. Since the inauguration of the Tsai administration, Taiwan has lost diplomatic ties with some countries under pressure from China. Taiwan now has diplomatic ties with just 17 countries.
Domestically, China's religious policy has close ties with efforts to stabilize the country, as separation and independence movements are active in the Tibet Autonomous Region, where Buddhism is predominant, and in the Xinjiang-Uygur Autonomous Region, which has many Muslim residents.
Although China's constitution guarantees freedom of faith, religious groups need to accept guidance from the Chinese Communist Party to be recognized as legal institutions. Therefore, China's Catholics were divided into two -- those loyal to the Vatican and followers of the officially sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.
The bone of contention between Beijing was who the Chinese followers should listen to, -- either the Communist Party, the absolute power in China, or the pope.
China had wanted the Vatican to sever ties with Taiwan as a show of acceptance of its "one-China policy" and to recognize the "independence" of the government backed Catholic association and its selection of bishops.
Chinese followers of "underground churches" not approved by the government voiced alarm at the news of the "provisional agreement." A Catholic in the Heibei Province of northeastern China told the Mainichi Shimbun: "It is a provisional agreement and no details are available. I have no choice but to pray now."
In recent months, Chinese authorities have tightened control on religious activities, banning minors from attending them. Even a priest at an officially recognized church near Beijing confided that he cannot find "major meaning" as religious tensions rise. "China and the Vatican may get closer politically. But their religious ties may face tough issues," said the priest.
(Japanese original by Isamu Gari, Paris Bureau; Joji Uramatsu and Keisuke Kawazu, Beijing Bureau; and Shizuya Fukuoka, Taipei Bureau)