Chinese bishop reshuffle reinforces fears of state meddling

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Originally built in 1655, this Catholic church in Beijing has been rebuilt three times (World Watch Monitor)
Originally built in 1655, this Catholic church in Beijing has been rebuilt three times (World Watch Monitor)
Originally built in 1655, this Catholic church in Beijing has been rebuilt three times (World Watch Monitor)

Fears are growing that China’s communist government may be gaining more control over the Catholic Church there, as news emerged that the Vatican asked two bishops it had appointed to step aside in favour of ones selected by Beijing.

These developments have taken place following a state campaign against China’s Protestant churches, involving the removal of crosses from up to 2,000 churches and even the demolition of churches, and as a raft of new restrictions on religious practice come into force this week in the name of curbing extremism.

Bishop Peter Zhuang Jianjian of Shantou (Guangdong) was reportedly forced to go to Beijing, where a delegation from the Vatican asked him to leave his post to be replaced by Joseph Huang Bingzhang, a bishop not recognised by the Vatican. According to the Rome-based website AsiaNews, he received the same request last October.

The delegation then asked Bishop Joseph Guo Xijin of Mindong to accept a demotion to become the auxiliary or coadjutor of Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu, who is also not approved by the Vatican.

Hong Kong-based Cardinal Joseph Zen-Zekiun, 86, wrote in a blog post yesterday that the Vatican was at risk of “selling out the Catholic Church in China”. Pope Francis wants the Vatican to reach a deal with the state-backed Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association that oversees the registered Church.

Cardinal Zen was so troubled by the Vatican asking two of its own bishops to step aside that he flew to Rome to pass on a message from one of them, Bishop Zhuang, to Pope Francis and to convey what he later called “the worries of [Francis’] faithful children in China”. In an audience with the Pope, Francis told him: “I told them not to create another Mindszenty case!” (Cardinal Mindszenty was Archbishop of Budapest during Hungary’s communist dictatorship. The regime imprisoned him, but allowed him to flee the country; the Vatican replaced him with a candidate more to the government’s liking.)

From his experience of teaching in seminaries of the official Catholic community in the 1990s, Zen said state-approved bishops there were subjected to “slavery and humiliation”. He likened the Chinese government today to a “totalitarian” regime.

State-approved clergy are less likely to criticise the communist government and are more likely to follow orders than so-called “underground” priests, despite Beijing’s sporadic crackdowns on clergy who question its authority and human-rights record.

Paul, a Catholic quoted by UCA News, criticised the Vatican’s approach. “We can neither bow nor compromise. If the Vatican does not live up to expectations, we have to fight for ourselves,” he said.

President Xi Jinping has said “religions in China must be Chinese in orientation” and independent from outside influence. The state-approved bishops and the Patriotic Association last December passed a five-year plan to “Sinicize” the Catholic Church.

AsiaNews commented: “Sinicizing the Chinese Church means supporting the principle of independence [from Rome] and follow the leadership of the Communist Party.”

Restrictions that come into force this week urge local officials to exert greater control over Christian and Muslim congregations and effectively outlaw “underground” church meetings, threatening church leaders and congregations with large fines and confiscation of assets.

A local source told World Watch Monitor that the restrictions were one of several measures introduced to promote China’s political ideology and increase control over its Christian population, which is fast growing.

“More and more analysts anticipate further tightening of security, control and increased religious restrictions under Xi’s political influence, which might last until the year 2028 or later. Local churches that are closely connected with overseas groups – for example they’re affiliated with overseas denominations or receiving overseas funds – or which have a large congregation size, meet in public areas, or openly advocate against government policies, would likely be the first to be targeted in a crackdown,” the source said.

China is ranked the 43rd most difficult country in which to live as a Christian, according to the World Watch List published annually by the charity Open Doors. “If churches get too large or too political, they are seen as a threat and persecuted,” the charity said, adding: “Communist authorities are increasing restrictions on Christians in order to control society and stay in power.”

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