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RELIGION-CHINA: Diplomatic Breakthrough in Sight After Pope’s Death

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Apr 7 2005 (IPS) - The death of Pope John Paul II, a lifetime crusader against communism, has sparked speculation of an imminent diplomatic thaw between the Vatican and mainland China – more than 50 years after the communist government expelled all foreign priests and severed links with the Holy See.

But hopes for the restoration of diplomatic ties might still be derailed by Beijing’s rigid insistence that the Communist Party, instead of Rome, appoint all Catholic bishops in the country.

News that Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian would be attending the pope’s funeral on Friday could further complicate the already delicate situation between Beijing and Vatican. The Vatican is Taiwan’s only diplomatic ally in Europe.

Expectations that John Paul II’s successor would normalise ties with China were boosted this week when the head of the church in Hong Kong told his congregation and local media that the Vatican was ready to sacrifice diplomatic relations with China’s rival, Taiwan, to win Beijing’s blessing.

”The Holy See has been thinking of giving up Taiwan. This is a difficult (decision) but it has decided to do it,” Bishop Joseph Zen Ze-kiun was quoted as saying after a Requiem Mass in Hong Kong to mourn the late Pope.

Bishop Zen hinted that the Vatican might be prepared to sever ties with Taipei in return for greater freedom for the Catholic church to operate inside China. ”But the bishop in Taiwan understands this. If the Holy See does not establish (diplomatic) ties with China, Catholics there will have no real freedom,” he said.

According to the Holy See press office, all major diplomatic activity and initiatives of the Vatican were suspended until a conclave later this month to elect a new pope.

But two days before the pope’s death, Cardinal Godfried Daneels of Belgium went to Beijing to meet Ye Xiaowen, director-general of the State Administration of Religious Affairs, and was later received by vice-premier Hui Liangyu.

Regarded as one of the prime candidates to succeed the late Pope, Cardinal Daneels sparked talks of a thaw between Beijing and the Vatican. The meeting between the Belgian cardinal and the Chinese vice-premier was one of the highest-level meetings held in mainland China between a prominent Catholic clergyman and Beijing officials in years.

The Vatican has several times been on the point of switching recognition from Taiwan – most recently in 2001, when the Pope apologised on behalf of the Catholic Church for the mistakes it had made and the pain caused to the Chinese during its colonial past.

The pope’s act of contrition was contained in a message to a conference on Matteo Ricci, the Jesuit priest who introduced Catholicism to the Chinese imperial court more than 500 years ago. The pope said the protection of European political powers had limited the freedom of action of Christian missionaries and prevented them from accomplishing their mission of service to the Chinese people.

The delicate negotiations however collapsed when Beijing shrugged the pontiff’s appeal for reconciliation, saying the apology didn’t go far enough because the pope didn’t say sorry for canonising Catholic martyrs in 2000.

The Vatican canonised 120 martyrs on China’s Oct. 1 National Day, saying they were killed during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion out of loyalty to their faith. But Beijing insists most were traitors executed for breaking laws when foreign forces invaded China in the aftermath of the uprising.

About five million Chinese Catholics are recorded as belonging to the state-controlled China Patriotic Church, while another eight million allegedly belong to an underground church that recognises the pope.

China has imprisoned some priests for decades for refusing to renounce their loyalty to the pope and has persecuted their followers and demolished churches. The state also severely limits the number of seminaries where priests can be trained.

The Communist Party insists it – not the pope – has the sole right to appoint priests and bishops inside China. Even as Cardinal Daneels was visiting Beijing, the Vatican announced that two elderly Roman Catholic bishops, a priest and a Catholic layman, had been arrested in China.

For years, China has insisted on two conditions for normalising ties with the Holy See. First, Beijing says the Vatican must stop recognising Taiwan and secondly it must promise not to interfere in China’s internal affairs, including religious matters.

Responding to questions about a possible rapprochement, Chinese officials so far have stuck to their guns – without giving any indication that Beijing is eager to reconsider its demands.

”We are ready to improve our relations with the Vatican provided it severs diplomatic ties with Taiwan and that it does not interfere in the internal affairs of China in the name of religion,” Qin Gang, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said Tuesday.

Despite speculations that appointments of bishops in China might follow the examples of Vietnam and Cuba where the government consults the Vatican on the candidates put forward, Qin stressed that Beijing will not allow the pope to appoint Chinese Catholic bishops.

Reports of possible change in Vatican policy were refuted by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. ”Relations between the Holy See and Taiwan will remain unchanged,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Michael Lu Ching-lung said.

He noted that to establish ties with China, the Vatican would first have to break off ties with Taipei, which he said was unprecedented.

Meanwhile, Taiwan’s President Chen has secured an entry permit from Italy to attend the funeral of the pope on Friday.

The entry permit is considered a diplomatic coup for the island as the Italian government had previously refused to issue Chen and his predecessor, Lee Teng-hui, visas for them to visit the Vatican.

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