Understandably, most reaction to Pope Francis’s latest blockbuster interview, in this case with the Spanish newspaper El Pais, focused on his comments on populism, including Donald Trump.
Whenever you have the pope warning against the lure of political “saviors” promising to solve crises with walls and wire, and even making comparisons to Adolph Hitler, it’s obviously going to make waves and get tongues wagging.
Yet for all those who care about the cause of religious freedom around the world, there’s another portion of the interview that’s likely to raise eyebrows and, perhaps, generate some consternation – what Francis had to say about China.
In the English translation provided by El Pais, here’s what the pope is quoted as having said: “In China, churches are crowded. In China they can worship freely.”
In the original Spanish, the pope’s statement wasn’t quite that bald. What he said was, “En China las iglesias están llenas. Se puede practicar la religión en China,” which translates as, “In China the churches are full … one can practice religion in China.”
There is, of course, a big difference between saying religion can be practiced someplace, which can imply despite difficulties and dangers, and claiming that one can “worship freely” there.
Nevertheless, the fact that Pope Francis appeared to suggest that the climate for religious freedom in China is basically positive likely will irritate, even outrage, people who know the reality, and who have been working on behalf of the country’s religious minorities.
To begin with, the first part of the pope’s statement, that churches are full, is empirically accurate. Christianity has been growing like gangbusters in China, to the extent that at some point in the not-too-distant future observers expect it to be home to the single largest Christian population anywhere in the world.
For the record, the vast majority of that expansion has come among Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians. By way of contrast, the small Catholic community has done little more than keep pace with overall population growth.
On what Francis said about the ability to practice one’s religion, however, the situation is considerably more complicated than the pope’s simple statement suggested, and it is a bit puzzling that he didn’t at least acknowledge the challenges.
It’s especially curious because it’s not as if he doesn’t know. Last November, when Francis celebrated a Mass for bishops who had died during the past year, the Vatican booklet for the liturgy included five bishops from mainland China who had served time in prison or labor camps, and either died in prison or from health complications after their release.
Information about China’s policy of tight control over religious groups is easily available.
In its most recent annual report, the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom recommended that China be designated a “country of particular concern,” meaning one of the world’s worst violators when it comes to respecting the right to religious liberty.
Here’s what the 2016 report found, covering the preceding year.
“China’s severe religious freedom violations continued in 2015,” it said. “During the past year, as in recent years, the central and/or provincial governments continued to forcibly remove crosses and bulldoze churches; implement a discriminatory and at times violent crackdown on Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists and their rights; and harass, imprison, or otherwise detain Falun Gong practitioners, human rights defenders, and others.”
Christians are often in the front lines for those campaigns of harassment and intimidation.
Just a few days before the pope gave his El Pais interview, Pastor Gu Yuese of Congyi Church, the country’s largest state-run megachurch, was re-arrested for refusing to support the government’s removal of crosses from Christian structures. Some observers believe it may be the most significant anti-Christian crackdown since the Cultural Revolution, because it sends a chilling signal not only to dissident but even those Christians trying to play by the government’s rules.
Gu had been arrested previously at the beginning of 2016 on the same charges, when government authorities investigated him for corruption. He was released in March on bail, and held under house arrest. Hundreds of ordinary Christians and pastors have been arrested for the same reason.
Catholics who chafe against the government’s attempt to control the Church often suffer the same fate. As of mid-2016, at least three bishops and more than a dozen priests were in prison in China, and Catholics in various parts of the country routinely complain of surveillance, intimidation and the threat of arrest.
In late December, China’s Minister for Religious Affairs sent another shot across the bow, saying Beijing is willing to engage in dialogue with the Vatican but that the price of admission is that Chinese Catholics must “hold up high the flag of patriotism” – meaning, of course, not questioning the government’s domination of religious life.
Just the week before, the Vatican was compelled to issue a statement saying it was “saddened” when government officials insisted that an “illegitimate” bishop, meaning one ordained without the pope’s consent, had to be at the ordination ceremony for two new bishops who came with the approval of both Beijing and Rome.
Granted, China is not North Korea, where tens of thousands of Christians languish in forced labor camps, nor is it Syria and Iraq, essentially a free-fire zone in which Christians are routinely slaughtered. Still, to say that conditions on the ground add up to an ability to “practice religion” seems a serious exaggeration.
Of course, Francis may be engaged in that time-honored Vatican strategy of playing the long game, playing down provocative rhetoric in order to advance the relationship with Beijing, ideally affording Rome greater leverage to achieve positive change. Further, the pope may be concerned that Christians on the ground in China would be the ones to pay the price should he indulge in finger-pointing and denunciations.
Still, those Catholics in China these days behind bars, or who fear ending up there, may be forgiven for wishing that once in a while, their pope would speak publicly and clearly about their sacrifice.
Whenever that day may be, it certainly wasn’t the El Pais interview.