Thaw in China-Vatican relations

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Sultan M Hali

The People’s Republic of China and the Holy See do not have diplomatic relations since 1951. It is interesting to note that China has the largest population in the world while the Vatican has the smallest. Pope Francis and Xi Jinping came to power at the same time – March 13 and March 14, 2013, respectively. Their personalities have had a major impact on the relations which are depicting visual signs of a thaw.
Pope Francis refused audience to the controversial Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama and has instead issued an invitation to President Xi Jinping to visit the Vatican. On the other hand, Pope Francis has declared the Vatican’s relations with Beijing as “good” and confirmed that he has recently received a present from China’s President Xi Jinping. This statement came while the Pope was speaking aboard the papal plane, flying home from Azerbaijan last weekend. He disclosed that President Xi had sent him a gift with a visiting delegation that had attended a Vatican conference.
It was disclosed by Pope Francis that in the early stages of the Communist revolution, relations between the Holy See and China were snapped but with greater religious freedom in China, working groups are now “slowly” discussing the restoration of relations. Some positive steps have been taken in the last nine years to improve relations. In September 2007, the appointment of Father Joseph Li Shan by the PRC authorities was “tacitly approved” by the Vatican. In May 2008, the China Philharmonic Orchestra performed a concert for the Pope inside the Vatican, prompting analysts to speak of a “growing rapprochement” between the two countries. Since Pope Francis’ inauguration in March 2013 he has publicly expressed his wish to visit China and improve the Sino-Holy See relationship in a media interview. It was also reported that on a Papal visit to South Korea in August 2014 China opened up its airspace to the Pope’s plane, and while crossing the Chinese airspace the Pope sent a telegram expressing his “best wishes” to the Chinese people.
In an interview in February 2016, addressing the Chinese President, Pope Francis told Xi Jinping, “The world looks to this great wisdom of yours.” He repeated that “the world looks to China’s wisdom and civilization.” The pope also “described the excitement he felt when he was about to enter Chinese airspace on the flight from Seoul to Rome in August 2014.” During that in-flight news conference, the pope said, “I think of the great Chinese sages, theirs is a history of knowledge, of wisdom” and that he wanted to visit China in the near future. Pope Francis has issued an invitation to Xi to come to the Vatican.
The current Papal Head also informed that the Vatican Museums had recently held an exhibition in China and Beijing was planning to hold an exhibition in the Vatican in the near future. In August 2016, the head of Hong Kong’s Catholic Church revealed that the Vatican and Beijing had reached an initial agreement on the appointment of Catholic bishops in China. Under the initial agreement, the pope would choose from a list of candidates recommended by a conference compromising bishops from China’s churches. The Cardinal has now stated that a bishop’s conference in China would have the authority to recommend the candidates while the final decision would still rest with the pope. No other civil government in the world has been granted this authority.
The Chinese government accommodates five religions – Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism. It regulates their activities through the Chinese Communist Party. Christianity in China is professed under the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA). Earlier, in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI’s desire for some rapprochement seemed to bear fruit. Benedict urged leaders in the underground Church and the CPCA towards dialogue and joint-liturgies. He even instructed the Jesuits to prepare for new missionary efforts in China.
China has demanded that the Vatican cut off diplomatic ties with Taiwan before officially opening diplomatic channels with the Holy See. Taiwan, which is a province of the People’s Republic of China, postures as an independent country and some western powers support it. Vatican sees no problem with denouncing Taiwan and would like to proceed with setting better relations with China.
Pope Francis admires Chinese President Xi Jinping and is desirous of better Sino-Vatican relations. The Pope and his Secretary of State have gone to the extent of stating that their dialogue with China will bring “a more fraternal world society and with a greater level of social equity, is the only way to achieve peace,” which can be an “example for the world as a whole, building bridges of fraternity and communion everywhere,” would have “immense benefits for world peace, very, very big benefits,” and that “the blossom [of relations with China] will flourish and bear good fruits for the good of the same China and of all the world.”
Pope Francis even went so far as to admonish other governments that “fear of the rise in China’s economic and geopolitical influence ‘is not a good counselor.’” The Vatican is cognizant that of the fact that the realization of Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream will propel China to achieving its true potential of being a world leader.
Pope Francis states that he places his faith “in a China that can make an increasingly important contribution to the consolidation of peace balances,” compared to “what happened in Yalta and we saw the results. [C]arving up the cake, as in Yalta, means dividing humanity and culture into small pieces.” The pope was referring to the 1945 conference where Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin met to discuss ending the war and making plans for a post-war world. It is heartening to perceive that the Holy See and People’s Republic of China are being led by pragmatic leaders, who are striving for better relations with each other because this will have a direct impact on achieving world peace.
—The writer is retired PAF Group Captain and a TV talk show host.