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Beijing-Vatican deal: A grim future for the church in China
THOUGH not a churchgoer, I have over the years maintained a lively interest in religion, particularly Christianity, no doubt because of a Catholic education from kindergarten through university. I stopped going to church entirely a quarter century ago after I was told by a priest during confession that I was going to hell because I was divorced and had remarried.
Even though the accord between the Vatican and China on the nomination of bishops was expected, it nonetheless came as a shock. The "provisional" agreement was the first signed between China, with one of the world's oldest civilisations, and the Catholic Church, whose roots go back thousands of years. Each claims the adherence of well over a billion people.
The agreement's contents were not released but the media was briefed. The Vatican is allowing a communist government to pick its bishops, presumably with a papal veto. China, for the first time, is acknowledging that Rome has a role in the nomination of bishops.
The agreement culminated years of discussion involving several pontiffs. Competition between China and the Vatican on the naming of bishops in previous years saw China not recognising - and sometimes incarcerating - those appointed by Rome, and the Vatican excommunicating those appointed by Beijing.
It spells the end of the underground church, which has been loyal to Rome for almost 70 years. Their members account for roughly half the Catholics in China, estimated at 12 million. The others are tended by the communist-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
The Vatican says that it is uniting a divided community of Catholics. But to many, including retired Cardinal Joseph Zen in Hong Kong, it looks like the Vatican is abandoning those who had been loyal while favouring those who accommodated themselves to the Communist party. Certain bishops loyal to Rome are being asked to step aside to make way for communist-approved bishops.
Meanwhile, what is going on within China behind the scenes suggests a bleak future for the church. General Secretary Xi Jinping is insisting that Christianity be Sinicised within five years.
Last year, at the epoch-making 19th party congress, Mr Xi pledged "to uphold the principle that religions in China must be Chinese in orientation and provide active guidance to religions so that they can adapt themselves to socialist society".
All religions are under pressure, with Uighurs and other Muslims being the most persecuted, followed by Tibetan Buddhists. Chinese Buddhism, Mr Xi told Unesco in 2004, went through an extended period of integrated development with Confucianism and Taoism and finally became "Buddhism with Chinese characteristics".
In February, new regulations went into effect making it illegal to worship in private houses. Minors are not allowed in churches.
Significantly, Mr Xi isn't calling on churches to integrate with Chinese culture, but rather with socialist society. The churches are already Chinese; they just aren't socialist enough. The part1y wants tighter control of them.
Both Catholics and Protestants have responded to Mr Xi's call for Sinicisation.
The Catholic Patriotic Association disclosed its five-year plan in June. The document says: "To love the motherland and obey the state regime is a responsibility and obligation for each Christian. Core political requirements are acceptance of the leadership of the Communist Party of China, supporting the socialist system and safeguarding constitutional and legal authorities."
It went on: "The Church will guide clerics and ordinary Catholics to actively practise core values of socialism, love the motherland passionately, support the leadership of the Communist Party, obey the law and serve society." There was nothing about its Christian mission.
Two Protestant national committees, too, have released a five-year plan to Sinicise themselves.
It is important, the Protestants say, to "Embrace and support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. Be guided by the core values of socialism and endorse the systems, ways, theories and culture of our country's development. Based on Biblical teachings, stick to the fundamental beliefs and core teachings."
Of course, Marxism is also foreign. But since the time of Deng Xiaoping, the party has been careful to say that what it practises is "socialism with Chinese characteristics".
In all likelihood, what the party hopes is that Chinese churches will transform themselves not by becoming more Chinese but by becoming more socialistic. All Christians in China, bishops and laity, are already Chinese. The liturgy is thoroughly Chinese. The only thing is that they have not yet become communists.
But the call for Sinicisation has already seen both Catholics and Protestants hail the leadership of the Communist Party. Still, I assume, Mr Xi will continue the big squeeze.
- The writer is a Hong Kong-based commentator. He can be reached at Frank.email@example.com. Twitter:@FrankChing