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Church unity is path to good relations with government

Guangzhou (UCAN): “The Vatican doesn’t really understand the reality of the Church in China,” Bishop Joseph Gan Junqiu, from Guangzhou, said during an interview at his house in the compound of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

With both the Holy See and Beijing having undergone recent leadership changes, the bishop noted that there was still no word from the Vatican on how Pope Francis might tackle the thorny issue of ties with the Chinese government.

The bishop, who is recognised by both Beijing and the Holy See, suggested the Vatican should “see the China Church like a Chinese.” 

He explained that the official and unofficial Church communities needed to unite and then the Holy See and Beijing should begin to slowly rebuild relations.

“We don’t yet know what the new pope is going to say and do regarding China,” Bishop Gan commented.

He added that the media had fuelled a siege mentality in Beijing by fixating on religious intolerance in China—in particular, the discord between the official and unofficial communities—while ignoring positive developments. 

He pointed to a government donation of 19 million yuan ($23.8 million) in 2007 to help renovate Guangzhou’s 125-year-old cathedral, as well as the steadily rising number of places of worship and worshippers in southern China’s Guangdong province, as major positives.

“If you’re always talking about the negative side of the China Church, this isn’t helping,” He went on.

Bishop Gan is a vice secretary general of the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China, which is not recognised by the Vatican.

He has been described as politically savvy in a leaked July 2008 diplomatic cable, by the consul-general of the United States of America, who noted he is “someone capable of both walking a tightrope between Rome and Beijing, as well as finding ways to get his message (across) without a backlash from the very conservative political and religious establishment in south China.”

However, not all close observers of Sino-Vatican relations share the optimism.

In recent years, Bob Fu, the exiled Chinese head of the Texas-based non-profit group, China Aid, has been among the country’s strongest critics of its religious rights record and raised awareness of the persecution of unregistered Protestant Churches and the imprisonment of pastors.

While he acknowledged that positive things had happened in China over the past 30 years, he said, “I do not think the fundamental situation and government policy has changed much.” 

Fu noted that the government in Beijing still does not acknowledge that there is any persecution of Christians in China.

“I think, generally, the international discourse is much more balanced than the domestic (discourse on religion) in China,” he said.

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