TAIPEI, Taiwan — Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first trip overseas since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic will overlap with a visit by Pope Francis to Kazakhstan, although the Vatican says there are no plans for them to meet.
Xi’s state visit Wednesday comes just weeks ahead of an all-important political meeting in China where he is expected to take a third term as he cements his grip on power. The pope is in Kazakhstan until Thursday for a state visit and an interfaith congress of world religious leaders.
Asked during his flight to Kazakhstan about a possible meeting with Xi, the pope said, “I don’t have any news about this. But I am always ready to go to China.”
The two have been in the same vicinity before and not met, including New York for the United nations General Assembly in 2015 and Xi’s visit to Italy in 2019.
The Vatican and China are due to renew their 2018 deal on bishop nominations at the end of this month. A Vatican delegation recently returned from Beijing, and Holy See officials expect the deal to be continued.
Here’s a look at Beijing’s complicated relationship with the Vatican and the conditions that worshippers face in China.
What is China’s relationship with the Vatican?
China does not have diplomatic relations with Vatican, ever since the ruling Communist Party required Catholics in China to sever ties with the Vatican in the 1950s. For decades, people could worship only in churches affiliated with the party-controlled Patriotic Catholic Association.
The Association follows Vatican doctrine and sends theologians to Rome for study sessions, but the ruling party rejects any role for the pope in picking bishops in China or managing churches.
The two sides reached an agreement in 2018 that gave the Holy See the final say over bishops proposed by Beijing, but details have never been released. Francis has said the process involves a dialogue, but that he has the final say.
Beijing had long insisted that it must approve appointments as a matter of its national sovereignty. The Vatican has insisted on the pope’s divine authority to choose the successors of Christ’s apostles.
Vatican officials have said if the Vatican didn’t hammer out something new, there was a risk of the Catholic Church in China becoming irrevocably split.
Vatican City, of which the pope is head of state, is the last European government to maintain ties with Taiwan, the self-ruled island democracy the Communist Party claims as part of its territory. Any agreement to establish formal ties with Beijing would likely require the Vatican to break diplomatic ties with Taiwan and endorse the party’s claim to the island.
How has the Beijing-Vatican relationship changed in recent years?
Vatican officials have said they hope the 2018 deal will lead to improvements in the conditions for the Chinese Catholic community and not just focus on bishop nominations.
The deal has brought China and the Vatican closer together in the past four years, said Chang Chia-lin, a professor of religious studies at Tamkang University in Taiwan.
“In the future, if China agrees to let the pope make a visit, I think the possibility for Vatican-China to establish diplomatic relations will deepen,” Chang said.
Despite the closer ties, Catholics practicing outside state churches face great pressure and harassment. Rights groups have criticized the deal, saying the costs outweighed whatever benefits have been brought.
Joseph Zen, a prominent Catholic cardinal in Hong Kong who had been a staunch critic of China’s Communist Party, was arrested in May as part of a crackdown on dissent in the semi-autonomous Chinese city.
The Vatican issued a statement of concern — a rarity given its delicate relationship with Beijing.
“It seems likely that in order to maintain the positive diplomacy required to continue with the Sino-Vatican agreement, the Vatican has been unwilling to condemn the Chinese government’s ongoing crimes against humanity targeting Uyghurs and the human rights crackdown in Hong Kong – even when it has affected prominent Catholics like Cardinal Zen,” said William Nee, the Research and Advocacy Coordinator at Chinese Human Rights Defenders.
An estimated one million or more Uyghurs and others from predominantly Muslim ethnic groups were held in internment camps in the western Xinjiang region in what the U.N.’s human rights body said may amount to “crimes against humanity.”
What is the situation for Christians in China?
Under Xi, China has launched a crackdown on Christianity in recent years, part of an overall tightening on religious freedoms that has also affected worshippers of Islam and, to a lesser extent, Buddhism and Daoism.
Tens of millions of Chinese Roman Catholics as well as Christians had worshipped for decades in informal “house churches” and their presence was tolerated.
But China’s drive to “Sinicize” religion and give ultimate control to the Communist Party rather than a religious leader has led to informal churches coming under intense pressure to shut down. Christian worshippers have seen their churches raided, while facing interrogations and surveillance. Police have arrested pastors and priests associated with these churches.
Some, like the Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church, have fled overseas in order to practice their version of their religion.
Despite the crackdown, the number of Catholics and believers of other Christian denominations have grown over the past few decades, experts say.
“In China, an ordinary Christian, or Catholic, they have limited religious freedom. They can go to the church for Mass and prayer, and this so-called limited religious freedom, and it’s under the church which is controlled by the Communist Party,” said Chang.
Associated Press writers Joe McDonald in Beijing and Nicole Winfield in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, contributed to this report.