Renewal of Vatican-China deal triggers Taiwan religious freedom concerns

(Photo: © Peter Kenny)Holy Family Catholic Church in Taipei, Taiwan on Nov. 22, 2019.

Taiwan has highlighted concern for religious freedom and human rights following the Oct. 22 announcement of the renewal of the Vatican-China provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops.

The Catholic publication Crux reported that Taiwan insists the deal is not diplomatic and voicing hope it will better conditions for religious communities in the mainland.

The Vatican said on Oct 22 it had extended its controversial agreement with China over the appointment of bishops for another two years, CNN reported.

Details of the agreement have never been made public and it has been criticized by some Catholic officials as well as by U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo.

The Vatican was quoted by CNN as saying that the deal "is of great ecclesial and pastoral value" and said it "intends to pursue an open and constructive dialogue for the benefit of the life of the Catholic Church and the good of Chinese people."

Officially, there are about 6 million Catholics in China.

Prior to 2018, Beijing had long insisted on having the final say on all bishop appointments in mainland China, while the Holy See maintained that only the Pope has such authority.

The announcement renewed for another two years an historic accord reached in 2018 that end a decades-old power struggle over the right to appoint bishops in China, despite concerns over religious liberty and human rights in the country, The New York Times reported.

The agreement calls for China to formally recognize the Pope's authority within the Catholic Church and his final say over the country's bishops.

The Vatican in turn recognized the legitimacy of bishops previously appointed by the Chinese government and excommunicated by the church.

Taiwan has a population of almost 24 million people and Christians account for only about 4 percent of the island nation's population, but the country allows Christianity to be practiced freely.

In an Oct. 22 statement issued after the announcement of the deal's renewal, Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it has kept a consistent position on the accord, and voiced hope that "it can help improve the worsening situation of religious freedom in the [People's Republic of China]."

The ministry argued that religious freedom and human rights "have continued to deteriorate in China."

It pointed to government measures in China aimed at "suppressing believers who resist being controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)" and which force bishops to join the CCP-controlled Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.

"This so called 'sinicization of religion' in the People's Republic of China has become 'nationalization of religion,' even characterized by extensive CCP indoctrination," the statement said, insisting that since China's Communist Party dictates what happens on important matters, Catholics in the country "are facing serious challenges to their faith and conscience."

China regards Taiwan as a breakaway province which it has pledged to retake, by force if necessary.

Taiwan's leaders say, however, it is clearly much more than a province, arguing that it is a sovereign state.

"My main objection to the agreement is we don't know what it is," the American cardinal Raymond Burke, the de facto leader of critics of Pope Francis inside the church, said in a brief interview before greeting Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at an event organized by the U.S. Embassy to the Vatican last month, the Times reported.

In September, Pompeo angered some of the Vatican's top officials, including those negotiating with the Chinese, by publicly calling on the church to break off talks with China to preserve its moral standing.

The fact that he chose a conservative Christian magazine critical of Pope Francis  to air his grievances did not engender much sympathy among the church's leaders.

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