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    Greater China
     Apr 28, 2011

Tensions with Rome on smoother track
By Francesco Sisci

BEIJING - Although there is not yet a thaw in relations between Beijing and the Vatican, the climate is much warmer than it was during the tensions of last year.

Beijing felt soothed after a conciliatory statement from the Holy See last week at the end of the yearly summit on China. In fact, there is collaboration on the selection of some 10 new bishops that will take place in the coming months. In recent weeks, the two sides jointly appointed a bishop, Jian Shen, of the Diocese of Jiangmen in the southern province of Guangdong.

China broke off diplomatic relations with the Holy See in September 1951. At the heart of the issue is the appointing of Catholic bishops in mainland China, who are now named by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, the body created by the

Communist Party to control the church in China. Beijing's position is that bishops should be appointed by itself; the Holy See's position is that bishops can only be appointed by the pope.

Today, the two sides are developing a new relationship. Recent Chinese consultations with the Holy See were carried through Hong Kong and the Philippines. The central authorities in Beijing would prefer to stay out of it and leave discussions to local authorities. However, local Catholics are often not very coherent and united in promoting a particular candidate for appointment as bishop.

Archbishop Savio Hon, the new secretary of Propaganda Fide and a Hong Kong native, played a central role in the thaw. His recent interview with the CEI (Conference of Italian Bishops) newspaper of Avvenire has been translated and circulated freely on the Internet with photos of China, an obvious wink to the bishop of Beijing. In the past, such an interview would have been censored or blocked.

A key development occurred last year in a meeting between Cardinal Paul Shan of Taiwan and Wang Zuo'an, the new minister of the Religious Affairs department. To Beijing, the interview had at least two aspects: a religious character and an element concerning the Taiwan issue.

Beijing wanted to ensure that Taiwanese Catholics were not fighting against the reunification of the island with the mainland, as it seems they did a decade ago by supporting Chen Shui-bian, the president in favor of a unilateral declaration of independence of Taiwan from the rest of China.

Beijing believes it was the Taiwanese Catholics who undermined the possibility of normalization of ties between China and the Vatican by suggesting in 2001 to choose October 1 as the date to canonize over 100 Chinese saints. Beijing considered the choice of the date, China's national day, as a provocation and discussions were broken for years.

China also wanted Shan to understand its reasons for supporting a kind of diplomatic truce with the current Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jiu. Beijing in fact is not pushing for diplomatic relations with the Holy See, which recognizes Taiwan, in order not to further reduce Taiwan's diplomatic space and thus give face to Ma. Beijing wants Ma's support and commitment in the process of gradual and prudent reunification with China that he has already undertaken.

Finally, there is the crucial question of religion, on which Shan, 89, hit the right notes with Wang, saying, "China and the Vatican needed some time. The government has its own powers, and the Catholic Church has its own. Both must respect each other."

Translated from the double twists of Chinese and the Curia language, it means that both must cooperate in the selection of bishops, and that there cannot be a unilateral decision from the government.

For his views, Shan was "rewarded" with an invitation to visit China for about a week, starting June 4. That might just be the beginning, since other important visits could soon follow.

In turn, this should begin to smooth out some of the future bumps in the road. It should also help to cure last year's wounds caused by the ordination of Guo Jincai as bishop of Chengde, which the Holy See declared "seriously unlawful", and then the choice of an illegitimate bishop, Ma Yinglin, as president of the Chinese Bishops' Conference. Some Catholics in Rome had demanded that offenders be considered "schismatic," which would have poisoned relations with Beijing.

However, the next few weeks will not be quiet. The new "model" for relations gives more power to local branches of the Patriotic Catholic Association. There two or three new bishops who have not been yet been agreed upon by Rome and Beijing. Here it is unknown whether local authorities will wait, as Rome has requested, or will be eager to act and thus exacerbate the problems in bilateral relations.

Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore and can be reached at [email protected]

(Copyright 2011 Francesco Sisci.)

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