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Can a closed window let in fresh air?

HONG KONG (SE): A forum at St. Patrick’s parish in Lok Fu on September 25 to discuss the ongoing negotiations between the Vatican and Beijing wondered if it is realistic to expect a closed window to let in fresh air.

In the face of moves from the president of China, Xi Jinping, to introduce tighter controls on religion and add Chinese characteristics to theology, Ying Fuk-tsang, from the Divinity School of Chung Chi College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that he finds it extremely difficult to believe that there is any chance of creating a more open Church on the mainland.

Quoting reports from Xinhua, Ying explained that apart from controls and tinkering with beliefs, Xi is looking critically at the social functions of religion and tightening control through influencing significant people within various religious organisations.

Ying also explained that while the revised draft of the Religious Affairs Regulations, released in September for public consultation, claims that the current regulations governing the activities of religious groups, which took effect in 2005, have been revised to better protect their interests, they actually propose tighter control on religious education, websites, training, recognition and management of the clergy, as well as stricter surveillance on overseas exchanges.

He added that government departments will be more empowered to deal with religious affairs as well, making it even more difficult to believe the government  claim that the purpose of the revised regulations is to facilitate religious activity.

On top of this,  Ying said that while the Sino-Vatican talks are being promoted as primarily finding a solution to the appointment of bishops in the Church in China, the revisions also reaffirm the fundamentally problematic practice of self-ordination (illicit) without any external influence.

In addition, they place a blanket ban on causing conflict within any religious group, which he noted implies that criticism on the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association could be classified as an illegal activity.

Ying said he believes that from Beijing’s point of view, the negotiations are only a way of attacking Taiwan, by trying to remove its only ally in Europe—the Vatican—especially since Tsai Ing-wen, from the Democratic Progressive Party which pushes independence for Taiwan, was elected president this year.

He added that while people in the official Church in China do have limited freedom under close government supervision, family, or House Churches, can still breathe some fresh air.

“Is it better to stay outside the institution, than staying in the institution?” he queried, as he urged the Catholic Church to weigh possible gains and losses seriously before signing any agreement and not to make any decisions it may later regret.

Annie Lam Shun-wai, from the Holy Spirit Study Centre, addressed the sticky question of bishops in China who have been ordained since 2010 without a mandate from the Vatican.

She shared that the ordination ceremonies were not happy occasions, but marred by high tension as thousands of public security officers were deployed to keep control.

She pointed out that the ordinations involved a lot of corruption and human rights violations, noting that these bishops who were ordained under the self-ordination model of the Chinese government find it hard to win support from both the clergy and the laity.

She predicted that Beijing may continue to use its traditional carrot and stick method to force their chosen priests to be installed as bishops.

Relationships between the Vatican and the Chinese government came to a standstill in 2010, but communication was reported to have resumed late last year, and Lam quoted a government official as saying in August that Beijing has “an efficient and effective channel of communication” with the Vatican.

However, she said that she doubts the Chinese government has a sincere desire to reach any agreement, as reflected in its increasingly repressive behaviour towards religions.

She urged both sides to be more transparent and disclose some details about any mooted agreement between two.

She quoted the bishop of Hong Kong, John Cardinal Tong Hon, as saying, “The Holy See is willing to dialogue on the issue on the appointment of bishops in the Church in China and to reach a mutually acceptable consensus under the premises that the principles of the Catholic faith and of ecclesial communion are not violated...” in an article published in the  Sunday Examiner and the Kung Kao Po on August 7, titled, The Communion of the Church in China with the universal Church.

Cardinal Tong was pointing out that the Holy See persistently insists on dialogue rather than confrontation with the Chinese government, saying that what is of primary importance is building communion between local Churches and the universal Church.

Lam expressed the hope that the Vatican will be able to say no to any agreement that is detrimental to any principle of faith.

She reported that Catholics in the mainland generally regard Cardinal Tong’s article as rational and unbiased, but some believe it is too optimistic, as it is hard for the Church to enjoy greater freedom under tightening control.

She said that some of the clergy from the unofficial Church communities found Cardinal Tong’s suggestion about a united bishops’ conference unrealistic, as they find it hard to join their brother bishops from the official communities.

Nevertheless, Lam said that she is supportive of continuing negotiations, as they may improve the situation of the Church in China and enable better religious freedom that can assist faith formation of the laity, as well as help young priests and sisters, as she sees good moral values as the key to evangelisation.

Father Stephen Chan Mun-hung, from the Justice and Peace Commission, took the discussion a step further, adding the dimension of diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Beijing.

He said that although he would be supportive of it, as unity is the trend of the post-Vatican II universal Church, it is not a must for religious freedom.

He pointed out that the United States of America enjoyed religious freedom well before 1984 when diplomatic ties were finally established. “Whether a ruling party respects religions or not is far more important than whether there is any diplomatic relationship,” he pointed out.

Father Chan said he believes China does not see diplomatic ties with the Vatican as an urgent matter, as religious freedom is not in the interest of the Communist Party.

On the other hand, he said that the government does not want unity in any religion, as it views it as a threat.

He added that he really doubts that Beijing would allow any non-government organisation or any group independent of the Communist Party to exist on its soil.

Father Chan pointed out that the suffering Catholics on the mainland do not dare dream that any agreement with the Vatican will alleviate the persecution they are being subjected to, but at least what the universal Church can do is encourage through proclaiming justice.

These words drew warm applause from the over 120 people present.

Father Chan concluded by urging the Church to think many times before signing any agreement with Beijing, as it is good at reinterpreting its promises, in the same way it has with universal suffrage in Hong Kong.

He added that the strong point of the Vatican is dogma, not administrative issues.

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