China, Vatican sign historic deal on bishops

China, Vatican sign historic deal on bishops

Bishop Joseph Li Shan leads a mass at the South Cathedral in Beijing on September 22, 2018. AFP

China on Saturday reached a historic breakthrough with the Vatican on the appointment of bishops in the communist nation, ending a 72-year-old dispute over the issue.

Under the agreement, Pope Francis has recognised seven clerics ordained by Beijing without the approval of the Holy See, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said.

The issue of who appoints bishops has been at the heart of a dispute since China first broke off diplomatic ties with the Holy See in 1951.

Christianity is regarded as the fastest growing religion in China. According to unofficial estimates, the communist nation has 90 million Christians.

The Foreign Ministry said the deal, however, is provisional.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Chao and Antoine Camilleri, head of a Vatican delegation and the under-secretary for Relations with States, signed the agreement, a statement by the ministry said.

China and the Vatican will continue to maintain contact and push forward the process of improving bilateral ties, it added.

Meanwhile, the Vatican said the "provisional" deal concerning with how bishops are appointed in China was "not political but pastoral".

"Pope Francis hopes that, with these decisions, a new process may begin that will allow the wounds of the past to be overcome, leading to the full communion of all Chinese Catholics," the Vatican said in a statement.

"With a view to sustaining the proclamation of the Gospel in China, the Holy Father Pope Francis has decided to readmit to full ecclesial communion the remaining 'official' Bishops, ordained without Pontifical Mandate," it said.

In return, Beijing would recognise some, though not all, of the bishops previously appointed by the Holy See, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post (SCMP) quoted officials as saying.

Those not recognised might be so at a future date. Neither side has made public the full text of the agreement, the report said.

China and Vatican severed diplomatic ties in 1951, two years after the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) headed by Mao Zedong took over power in China after a bloody revolution.

The CPC which demand that its 90 million members remain atheists, apprehend foreign religions, specially Christianity, to subvert its rule like in the case of Poland where the Church movement was instrumental in overthrowing the Communist rule.

Terming the agreement as "epoch-making", Wang Meixiu, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, an official think tank, said it could help to normalise relations between the Holy See and China.

"This is the first time the Chinese government has recognised the status of the Pope within the Chinese church, and the Chinese Catholic Church as part of the universal church," the SCMP quoted her as saying.

The deal, however, has angered bishops and scholars critical of Beijing's controls on religion, including Hong Kong's Cardinal Joseph Zen, the most senior Catholic cleric on Chinese soil, who had said earlier that he believed the two sides were making a "secret deal".

On Saturday, he slammed the deal's lack of transparency, questioning why neither side had made the details public and why it had been described as "provisional".

But Francesco Sisci, an Italian sinologist and researcher at Renmin University in Beijing, said the Holy See had consulted all bishops in China before the deal.

"Many people outside China will say Beijing has not delivered on its promises, and that the Vatican has been cheated, but all bishops in China are in favour of the deal," he said.

"The effects will be long-term. It is positive that the Vatican will have a presence in China, and that China is willing to engage with the world on different levels," he was quoted by the SCMP as saying.

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox