To mark the 2013 election of Pope Francis, Chinese Catholics carry a crucifix on Qiku Mountain in Taiyuan, China. A Mass was celebrated at the historic holy place for local believers to pray for newly elected Pope Francis. CNS photo/Jon Woo, Reuters

Pope Francis reaches out to Chinese president

  • September 26, 2014

It may be the diplomatic equivalent of a Hail Mary pass, but it seems Pope Francis is serious about talking to Chinese President Xi Jinping. Not only did the Pope tell reporters as he flew home from South Korea Aug. 18 he would go to Beijing “tomorrow” if he had the chance, he has now sent a letter to Xi through Argentinian diplomatic channels inviting the Chinese leader to the Vatican to discuss world peace. 

For some 60 years the Vatican and the People’s Republic have refused to recognize each other. The Holy See is the only European nation which recognizes Taiwan as a country with full diplomatic relations. Most countries recognize mainland China’s claim to its renegade island province. Since the Chinese Communist Party expelled Archbishop Antonio Riberi in 1951 and set up the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association in 1957, Beijing has insisted China’s government has the final say on who is ordained a bishop, not the Vatican. 

Over the last year China has clamped down on all public displays of religion — Christian, Muslim and others. In Zhejiang Province authorities have issued demolition notices for more than 100 churches they say are in violation of zoning regulations. Some of them have been standing for decades. Almost all of these churches were state approved, not illegal undergound churches. There have also been campaigns to remove crosses from churches and crescent moons from mosques. Government officials have been cracking down on civil rights defenders, pro-democracy bloggers and any organization that seems less than deferential to the ruling party’s pre-eminent role in Chinese society. 

“The determination of the Chinese government to tighten restrictions on religion of all kinds has gotten stronger in the last few years, not weaker. I don’t think (China) would budge on that,” University of California expert on religion in China Richard Madsen told the Catholic News Service. 

The precise number of Catholics in China is unknown but a 2011 study from the Pew Research Centre in Washington. estimated it at nine million. 

Xi is a cynical master of power politics and perhaps not the ideal partner for the Catholic Church, a Canadian missionary with experience in China told The Catholic Register

“They’ve been getting rid of symbols, crosses on churches. It’s a little bit of ethnic cleansing or religious cleansing, which is not appreciated,” said the missionary who wanted his name withheld in advance of a visit to China. “I would invite him as the head of state, but I don’t trust that guy, to be honest.” 

But a former Canadian diplomat with ties to the Holy See thinks it’s worth trying for a closer relationship, and that world peace makes sense as a topic of mutual interest. A conversation between President Xi and Pope Francis would be “of world historical importance,” said Doug Roche, former Canadian disarmament ambassador to the United Nations. 

“It’s not sufficiently recognized in the general public or the media that China has voted at the United Nations for the commencement of negotiations to ban nuclear weapons, a position the Holy See ardently holds,” Roche said. 

Both the Holy See and China are great believers in the United Nations, said Roche. 

“What is it on the geopolitical front that can unite the Holy See and China in their common desire to advance the interests of world peace, particularly at this moment of barbarism in the world? The United Nations,” he said. 

During the Cold War the Vatican dealt with other communist regimes that wanted some degree of control over bishops’ appointments. 

“The problem of the appointment of bishops is not beyond the possibility of resolution, given good will on both sides. And it appears good will is now forthcoming,” Roche said. “There is no reason why a formula acceptable to both sides cannot be reached.” 

Just talking to the Chinese won’t represent much of a victory, said the Canadian missionary. 

“I would invite him (Xi) to show signs of how he could be a leader. He doesn’t have the best public justice record to fall back on, but I would challenge him,” the missionary said. “How could he set an example that other people might follow in one or two issues. And hold him to it.” 

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