ROME – After U.S. government officials criticized the Vatican’s recent deal with China on the appointment of bishops for making religious freedom in the Asian superpower worse, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said Wednesday there’s a need to be patient since the situation won’t change overnight.
“We signed this agreement to help advance religious freedom, to find normalization for the Catholic community there, and then for all other religions to have space and a role to play in society which is recognized,” Parolin told journalists April 3.
The deal, reached last September, is believed to allow both Chinese officials and the pope to have a say in the bishops who are named. However, the details of the agreement have not been made public.
Recently, ex-Trump strategist Steve Bannon told Crux that he may lead a lawsuit to compel the Vatican to release the text of the deal under the terms of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, drawing on resources from a fund of wealthy Chinese ex-patriates.
“Our hope,” Parolin said, “is that [the agreement] will help, not limit, religious freedom.”
In March, U.S. Ambassador at Large for Religious freedom Sam Brownback accused the deal of making things worse, saying during a speech in Hong Kong that the agreement has set a poor precedent for government interference with other religious communities, including Tibetan Buddhism and Christianity.
“Since this provisional deal was announced last year, the Chinese government’s abuse of members of Catholic communities has continued. We see no signs that will change in the near future,” Brownback said in his March 8 speech, urging China to stop interfering in religious affairs.
Speaking at an April 3 event titled “Stand Together to Defend International Religious Freedom,” sponsored by the #StandTogether Project, a digital platform devoted to publicizing anti-Christian persecution, Parolin spoke to reporters about Brownback’s assertion that the Vatican’s agreement with China has made religious persecution worse.
Parolin stressed the need to “be patient,” saying there is a tendency to want immediate results, but “history has not been built in one day. History is a long process, and I think we have to put ourselves in this perspective.”
“Sometimes I feel a little lost when I hear that, ‘Oh, no success or achievement has been made.’ Let things work peacefully, and then we’ll reach our goals,” he said, urging critics not to “judge things one meter from your nose” but to “look a little bit farther.”
“We want things done immediately, but things in history change very slowly. This is the wisdom of the Holy See. She is not looking for immediate results, she’s looking for a result that is in the hands of God, which is also in our hands as much as we can help God in his plan,” he said.
U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Callista Gingrich also warned of religious crackdowns in China.
Though she did not reference the Vatican’s agreement with China, she noted that Chinese authorities have cracked down not just on Christians but also Muslims, saying since 2017, Chinese officials “have detained more than one million ethnic Muslims in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region.”
“Uighurs, Kazakhs, and members of other Muslim minority groups have been targeted and forcibly relocated to internment camps. Family members do not know the whereabouts or status of their loved ones,” she said.
At the Stand Together event, various approaches to religious persecution were discussed, including media strategies, awareness and finding ways to combat religious extremism.
Roberto Fontolan, director of the International Center for Italian ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation, said that when it comes to Muslim extremism, part of the resolution will also require developing a “new concept of citizenship” in which minorities are not considered second-class citizens, but full members of society with equal rights.
During a second panel, experts discussed the need for a collaborative approach to advancing religious freedom, highlighting the growth of anti-Semitism and the need to protect minorities.
With an “unprecedented growth in religious diversity,” Professor Silvio Ferrari, who teaches law and religion at the University of Milan, said much of the fight for religious freedom will depend on ensuring rights for ethnic and religious minorities while also fostering recognition and appreciation of differences.
Participants discussed the separation of church and state, and whether in Islamic nations the push for a secular state could potentially be more hurtful than helpful in terms of fighting extremism.
While Ferarri expressed hope for a secular state, Monsignor Khaled Akasheh, secretary for the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and head of the Islam desk in the department, said the answer depends on “the political will” of leaders.
Akasheh referred to a recent statement from King Salman of Saudi Arabia complaining that Islam has been “hijacked” by extremists, and he cited efforts being made in Muslim nations that Pope Francis has visited, saying many are “pushing for greater freedom and citizenship for all.”
However, Alessandro Monteduro, director of Aid to the Church in Need in Italy, said he believes the push for a secular state has made the situation worse, telling Crux that “secularism is a problem” in terms of both overt and subtle threats to religious freedom.
“Religious freedom is a big problem right now, and it is maybe the most important problem because Western institutions, intellectuals and the media decided not to answer or analyze these kinds of problems in the right way,” he said.
Monteduro said the problem is due in part to a “politically correct” mentality which tends to avoid the subject, while another is a lack of preparation in knowing how to deal with problems when they arise.
“We don’t have the right preparation to face situations like the horrible images of thousands of people, Muslim extremists, in Pakistan after Asia Bibi’s liberation,” he said, adding that for him, “it was very difficult to accept. In Western countries, there was not enough consideration for this unbelievable situation.”
“It’s more dangerous to hide (these dramas) than to describe them,” he said.