China tensions await new pope

By Leslie Hook in Beijing

As the sun streams through the stained glass windows of St Joseph’s Cathedral in central Beijing, members of the kneeling congregation pray for their country, each other, and for the Pope.

But these daily prayers mask a deep rift between the Vatican and the Chinese government. The two sides do not have formal diplomatic relations and are increasingly at odds over bishop appointments in the official Chinese Catholic Church, which is run by a government body.

Meanwhile, Catholic groups in China are coming under growing pressure from state authorities, which have raided unlicensed churches and imprisoned clergy. The number of priests in China has been falling, and last year two seminaries had to shut down.

“The Chinese government has become more belligerent in selecting bishops and persecuting the church,” says Joseph Kung, who heads a US-based foundation that provides support and training to underground Catholic priests in China. “Things are getting very difficult.”

He points to the fate of Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin, who was put under house arrest and stripped of his title by Chinese authorities after he publicly resigned from the Catholic Patriotic Association last year. “Who is the Chinese government to take away a bishop’s title? Only the Pope can do that,” says Mr Kung.

The situation in China – a focus of Catholic evangelism for centuries – will be a key challenge for the new pope, after Benedict XVI steps down on February 28. Some members of the Church hope that his successor will turn over a fresh leaf with China through renewed engagement, high-level invitations and a resumption of the informal dialogue between the two sides that was cut off by Beijing in 2010.

But on Monday, China signalled it would maintain its tough approach to Vatican relations. Beijing is willing to engage with the Vatican only if the Holy See “severs diplomatic ties with Taiwan” and “refrains from interfering in China’s internal affairs”, said foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei.

For the Catholic house churches it has been very hard, because the authorities view them as being influenced by ‘outside forces’– Chinese laywer

China’s Communist party is officially atheist, but the government has been tightening its control over organised religions. The Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association insists that it, not the Vatican, has the authority to ordain bishops in China – which Catholics say violates a core doctrine of their faith. Three Chinese bishops have already been excommunicated as part of the widening disagreement.

Benedict XVI started his tenure eight years ago with a keen desire to turn things around. In 2007, he issued an unusual open letter to the Catholic church in China, called for dialogue with the Chinese authorities, and suggested the Vatican would be willing to normalise diplomatic relations with Beijing. Boosted by his support, informal talks between the Vatican and Beijing appeared to be making strong progress.

Today the situation is starkly different. Those talks ground to a halt in 2010, and all informal communications with Vatican representatives have been shut down.

Chinese authorities have denied visas to nearly two dozen Catholics with ties to the Vatican. Police and local authorities have cracked down hard on the underground “house churches” that are outside the state-sanctioned church system, and at least 10 Catholic priests are in jail because of their beliefs.

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“For the Catholic house churches it has been very hard, because the authorities view them as being influenced by ‘outside forces’,” says a Chinese lawyer who works on religious freedom cases.

One result is that the size of China’s Catholic populationis stagnant at around 12m, according to estimates from the Holy Spirit Study Centre, a Catholic research institute in Hong Kong, even while Catholic congregations are booming in the rest of the world. Roughly half of these worship in the underground “house churches” that are independent from the state.

“The Church certainly is not developing normally or properly as it should be,” says one church member.

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