Canada's former Ambassador of Religious Freedom, Andrew Bennett, urges the Holy See to use caution when engaging with China. Photo by Deborah Gyapong

Holy See urged to use caution in China dealings

  • April 4, 2017

OTTAWA – Canada and the Holy See should hold China’s “feet to the fire” on human rights and be cautious about engaging with the Chinese government, warned Canada’s former Ambassador of Religious Freedom.

Andrew Bennett warned the sixth annual Parliamentary Forum on Religious Freedom to be under “no illusion” as China becomes more engaged in the political, economic and social frameworks of the world. Instead of improving its record on human rights through this engagement, “they remain unmoved.”

“This is a cautionary tale for those countries such as Canada and our allies that seek to have a deeper relationship with China” on trade, defence and other matters, Bennett said, adding that the Holy See should also proceed with caution.

The Chinese government recognizes various religions, including the Catholic faith, under a handful of state-approved “patriotic associations.” But these associations do not guarantee religious freedom.

“The Holy See is now in a process of trying to reach some kind of consensus with the Chinese government on the role between the Catholic Patriotic Association and the Roman Catholic Church,” Bennett said. “I would caution the Holy See to be careful about whom they are engaging with, because there seems to be no desire on the part of the Chinese government to shift their approach, certainly not with Catholics.

“China consistently is placed at or near the top of countries that have the worst record in terms of government restrictions [of religious freedom],” he added.

“Too often we treat China as special,” Bennett said. “This is an argument for moral relativism at its worst. Either we defend religious freedom or not.”

David Mulroney, the former Canadian Ambassador to China and now president and vice-chancellor of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, said the Chinese government is in the grip of a “blood-stained ideology” that reduces everything to a material and atheistic perspective.

The Chinese Communist Party experiences “deep anxiety” because it is “perpetually insecure in its hold on power, and it explains in some ways the inclination to repress, punish and silence those who aspire to a deeper and richer vision of human possibility,” Mulroney said. Not only is the party deeply fearful of religious belief, but also of “thinkers, painters and poets.”

Mulroney traveled throughout China to spend time with faith groups, whether Catholic, Muslim or Tibetan Buddhist. He attended an illegal Protestant house church “operating outside of the control and approval of the party.”

“We were all complicit in an illegal act, daring to worship in something other than a space designated by the state,” he said. “But we were also enjoying the freedom granted us by the Universal Declaration (of Human Rights) that speaks of worship has having a private as well as a public dimension.

“Managing our future relationship with a country as complex and challenging as China requires us to lift our game,” he added. “We need to think carefully about how we advance our interests, while reflecting on the negative consequences of China’s reemergence as a global power.”

Actress, human rights advocate and 2015 Miss World Canada title holder Anastasia Lin told of her own encounters with persecution by the Chinese government. Because of her human rights advocacy, her father lost his business in China, she said, and she is blocked from visiting the country. The government censors art and silences the media “to make it more easy to enslave people.”

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