NEW YORK – The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom is “tremendously disappointed” with the Vatican’s decision to renew its deal with China, and it has expressed as much to the upper echelons of the U.S. government, according to one of the commissioners.

“I certainly understand as a Catholic that the Vatican is playing the long game here and not thinking about the immediate circumstances, but I think that these agreements have not produced any improvement in religious freedom for Catholics in China, and I think that the Holy See should really rethink its decision to dance with Xi on this whole business,” USCIRF Commissioner Stephen Schneck told Crux.

President Joe Biden appointed Schneck, a Catholic, to the nine person commission in June. USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan federal commission that monitors and reports on religious freedom to the U.S. government and Congress. It is separate from the State Department.

Catholics in China have long been divided between those belonging to the official, state-sanctioned church and an underground church loyal to the pope.

A few months before Schneck’s appointment, USCIRF published its 2022 report, which stated that “despite the Vatican-China agreement on bishops appointments, authorities continue to harass and detain underground Catholic priests who refuse to join the state-controlled Catholic association, such as Bishop Joseph Zhang Weizhu of Xixiang, Hebei Province.”

There’s also the case of Cardinal Joseph Zen, who with five others, was arrested in May under a Beijing-imposed national security law for allegedly colluding with foreign forces. They face sedition charges for failing to apply for local society registration for a now-defunct relief fund for pro-democracy protesters in 2019.

In addition, Catholic media mogul and pro-democracy advocate Jimmy Lai is currently serving a 20-month prison sentence for charges related to his role in unauthorized demonstrations during the 2019 protests. He is awaiting trial on separate national security law charges, in which he could be sentenced to life in prison. The trial is expected to take place in December.

Schneck highlighted the situation for underground Catholics and the cases of Zen and Lai when questioning the Holy See’s decision to renew its deal with China.

“I’m very concerned,” Schneck said. “It’s just really hard to imagine that whatever they might be hoping for in the long game; the immediate situation on the ground in China for Catholics is something that I think the Holy See should be concerned about.”

The USCIRF commissioner added that part of the problem is the lack of transparency from the Vatican about what’s in the agreement. And he’s concerned about the Chinese government’s “Sinicization” of religion in China essentially making religions exist in accordance with Chinese culture and society.

“I just can’t imagine what’s going on now is worth that in the future,” Schneck said. “In fact, I would go as far as to say, this is my personal comment, but it looks to me that China may in fact be using this agreement to crackdown further on underground Catholics in China, and if that’s the situation, then the Vatican’s actually losing ground with China, and not gaining ground at all.”

The Holy See announced on Oct. 22 that its deal with China regarding the appointment of bishops was renewed for another two years. The deal was signed in September 2018, and extended in October 2020. The exact terms of the agreement have never been made public, but it’s believed to allow the Holy See to appoint bishops from a selection of candidates proposed by the Chinese government.

There have been only six Chinese bishops appointed since the deal was made.

In the announcement, the Holy See said the Vatican is “committed to continuing a respectful and constructive dialogue with the Chinese Party for a productive implementation of the Accord and further development of bilateral relations, with a view of fostering the mission of the Catholic Church and the good of the Chinese people.”

Asked what message the renewal sends Catholics in China, Schneck said it’s one of confusion.

“Who are the pastors for their faith?” Schneck asked. “Do they come from the church of the state?”

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