On Tuesday, an exclusive interview with Pope Francis about China was published by the Asia Times, in which the pope urges the world not to fear growing Chinese power. It’s likely to be hailed as a great opening, as well as another sign of keen Vatican interest in moving ever closer to normalized diplomatic relations with Beijing.
“The Catholic Church, one of whose duties is to respect all civilizations, before this civilization, I would say, has the duty to respect it with a capital ‘R’,” the pope said.
Yet there’s a striking omission in the conversation between Francis and Italian journalist Francesco Sisci, a longtime correspondent in China, one that may be seen as disappointing by some of the pontiff’s own flock in China: The country’s record on religious freedom, including the difficulties facing its small but rapidly growing Christian minority.
Before getting to that, let’s stipulate three points.
First, the Vatican’s strategic decision to begin with respect and outreach vis-à-vis China, playing down potential flashpoints, hardly began under Pope Francis. It’s been standing diplomatic policy for decades, reaching back at least to 1966 when Pope Paul VI sent a New Year’s greeting to Chairman Mao without mentioning the cruelties of the Cultural Revolution.
The calculus in Rome has always been that an overt challenge to China over its treatment of religious minorities might only make things worse, so respectful engagement is the only route to long-term improvement.
Second, the correct way to engage China is something over which diplomats and statesmen have disagreed for centuries, and it’s probably unfair to expect the pope or the Vatican to have stumbled across an answer that’s eluded the best geopolitical minds in the world for an awfully long stretch of time.
Third, Sisci said that in his interview he did not wish to touch on “religious and political issues,” and his questions did not really afford the pope a chance to speak to the conditions facing Christians and other religious groups. (Of course, he’s the pope and could have made any point he wanted, but there was no natural moment for it.)
Nonetheless, many Christians in China will tell you that China’s growing power is not quite the unmixed blessing Francis might appear to suggest, because it means that police, security services, and the military are increasingly unrestrained in implementing China’s religion policy, which boils down to tight state control.
Legally speaking, China recognizes only five forms of religious expression: Buddhism, Taoism, Protestantism, Catholicism, and Islam. Adherents of those religions are tolerated, but expected to worship under the auspices of a state-approved, and state-controlled, body that manages the affairs of those denominations. For Catholics, this means the “Catholic Patriotic Association” and for Protestants the “Three-Self Patriotic Movement.”
Just two days ago, the pastor of China’s largest Protestant church, “Joseph” Gu Yuese, was tossed into a secret detention facility, known as a “black jail,” on allegations of embezzlement.
The move widely seen by his followers as payback for his outspoken criticism of a campaign by authorities in Zhejiang province to force Christians to take down their crosses from atop their churches, the latest in a long series of moves intended to intimidate and muzzle religious groups.
Many Chinese Christians saw the arrest as an especially chilling move, since Yuese is viewed as a willing collaborator with the state-sponsored system of control, often appearing at government ceremonies and hosting VIPs at his church.
If someone who played ball so thoroughly can be cast aside if he steps out of line, some Chinese Christians are saying, then no one is safe.
The arrest of Yuese builds on longstanding difficulties.
According to ChinaAid, an international non-profit Christian human rights organization, more than 1,000 Protestants in the country have been detained for unauthorized religious activity and given prison sentences in excess of a year. Government officials have also stepped up their demands for “theological reconstruction” — that is, purging Christianity of elements the ruling Communist Party regards as incompatible with its methods and priorities.
The same pattern of harassment is directed at the smaller but politically influential Catholic presence. As of this writing, there are two Catholic bishops in jail, one for 19 years and the other for 15, while others remain under surveillance by security agents and not able to travel or to speak freely. There are also at least seven Catholic priests behind bars.
The case of Auxiliary Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin of Shanghai illustrates the dynamics.
Ma, 48, was ordained as a Catholic bishop in July, 2012 with the consent of both the Chinese government and the Vatican. By all accounts, government overseers expected Ma to be compliant. To underscore that point, officials insisted that a bishop who was not recognized by the Vatican take part in Ma’s ordination ceremony.
Yet when the time came for the “illegitimate” state-backed bishop to lay hands on Ma, a standard part of the ritual, Ma got up and embraced him, preventing the bishop from performing the act that would have made him part of the sacrament.
At the end of the ceremony, Ma announced that he wanted to be the bishop of all, including Catholics fiercely loyal to Rome. As a result, Ma said, he would no longer be part of the Patriotic Association.
It was the first time in memory that a bishop of the state-sponsored church had made such an audacious statement in public. Many in the crowd erupted into applause, observers say, while others wept.
The bereft knew better. Ma was swiftly placed under a form of house arrest in a Shanghai seminary, which was later closed down by the government. He remained there for three years, essentially cut off from contact with the outside world, although recently he’s been allowed to receive people and to celebrate Mass with groups of faithful.
During his isolation, Chinese Catholic sources say, Ma was questioned by officials for weeks and also required to attend Communist indoctrination classes. His only way of communicating with the outside world was through a personal blog where he posts brief personal reflections and poetry.
Obviously, all this must be of concern to Pope Francis, who has referred repeatedly to the Church’s new martyrs and argued that the shared suffering of various branches of the Christian family is creating an “ecumenism of blood.”
Yet the closest he came to speaking about any of this in his latest interview is a rather generic call for “dialogue.”
“Dialogue does not mean that we end up with a compromise, half the cake for you and the other half for me,” he said.
Those paying a price for the faith in China today may be disappointed that the pontiff didn’t address their fate more directly. Time will tell — and, since this is China and the Vatican, that time may have to be measured in geological terms — whether the good will a pope buys by skipping over such matters will produce results down the line.