ROME – On Thursday the Diocese of Hong Kong announced that Bishop Stephen Chow will travel to Beijing next month in a bid to forge stronger ties, marking the first such visit in nearly 40 years.

According to a March 9 diocesan communique, Chow, 63, was invited by Beijing Bishop Joseph Li Shan sometime last year, and was accepted “in the spirit of brotherhood in the Lord.”

Chow will make a 5-day visit to Beijing beginning April 17, alongside Hong Kong auxiliary bishop Joseph Ha and the diocesan vicar general, Father Peter Choy, as well as Chow’s personal assistant.

In the communique, Chow said the visit “underscores the mission of the Diocese of Hong Kong to be a bridge…and promote exchanges and interactions between the two sides.”

According to the Sunday Examiner, the Hong Kong diocese’s online publication, after his arrival in Beijing, Chow will participate in a vespers service and celebrate a thanksgiving Mass in the city’s cathedral.

He is also expected to visit the tomb of Jesuit Father Matteo Ricci, who was declared venerable last year and was one of the founding figures in Chinese Catholicism. Chow, himself a Jesuit, will also visit various organizations which promote cultural exchange, and he will attend gatherings with Hong Kong citizens working in Beijing.

Chow’s visit to Beijing is significant, given that it will be the first time a Hong Kong bishop visits Beijing since 1985, when Hong Kong was still a British colony.

For decades, Hong Kong has been a Catholic stronghold on the edge of mainland China, where Catholics and members of other religions have at times faced persecution under the officially atheistic Chinese Communist Party rule.

When the Vatican struck its controversial provisional agreement with China on bishop appointments in 2018 – a deal which remains in place and is aimed at ending the divide between a so-called underground flock loyal to Rome, and an official state-backed church which has been in place more or less since the 1950s – Hong Kong was apparently not included.

However, many Hong Kong Catholics have voiced fear that Beijing authorities are attempting to tighten their grip on the Catholic Church in the territory in part due to the deal, extended an additional two years last October, and as part of their broader effort to squelch democracy in the city.

Several prominent Catholics, including media and business tycoon Jimmy Lai and Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen, 90, have faced legal repercussions for their support of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong in recent years and months.

Zen, a former bishop of Hong Kong, was arrested last May and charged in November along with several others for failing to properly register a now-defunct fund supporting pro-democracy protests. As a result of his guilty verdict, Zen was fined HK$4,000 ($512), but was spared any jail time.

After receiving permission from Chinese authorities to attend the funeral in Rome of retired Pope Benedict XVI, Zen fell ill and experienced breathing problems, forcing him to spend some time in the hospital.

Though the controversy surrounding the Vatican-China deal on bishops is far from over, Chow’s visit to Beijing is a sign that progress is still being made.

Li Shan, ordained a bishop in 2007 with Vatican approval, was elected president of the Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics last year during the 10th National Assembly of Chinese Catholic Representatives, a regular meeting of various Catholic entities overseen by China’s Communist Party.

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