DAILY CATHOLIC     WEDNESDAY     March 24, 1999     vol. 10, no. 58

from a CATHOLIC perspective

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          ROME (CWNews.com) - Italian officials meeting with Chinese President Jiang Zemin this week urged him to open talks with the Vatican to bring about diplomatic relations that could result in greater freedom for Chinese Catholics.

          Communist China restricts the free practice of religion, requiring all Catholics to belong to a state-sanctioned group that denies any fealty to Rome. The two primary obstacles for full relations are the Vatican's current diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, which China views as a renegade province, and accusations by China that the Vatican is interfering in its internal politics by seeking religious control of the Church in China.

          Mayor Francesco Rutelli of Rome said he has raised the matter of Vatican-China relations directly and publicly with Jiang. "For us, it would be wonderful news to receive a simple signal of willingness to dialogue in this area," he said. Premier Massimo D'Alema made the same appeal Monday in an interview in an Italian newspaper.

          The Holy See has signaled that it is ready to talk with China, offering the possibility of "modified" relations with Taiwan. But Foreign Affairs Minister Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran added, "Our interest in a religious rapport with Chinese Catholics cannot be seen as political interference."

          Meanwhile, Taiwan warned the Vatican not to be fooled by the Communists into helping isolate Taiwan diplomatically. "The Chinese Communist regime has always been hostile to religions," a foreign ministry spokesman said on Tuesday. "The Vatican must not be fooled by their pretense to be good."

          In a related story, the Vatican news agency FIDES has called upon the Chinese government to release two imprisoned Catholic bishops. But the Holy See, in an official statement released March 22, has cautioned that the FIDES appeal was not officially approved by the Vatican's Secretariat of State.

          In an editorial which the Vatican statement described as a "personal initiative," the director of FIDES, Father Bernardo Cervellera, had downplayed the possibility of improved diplomatic relations between the Holy See and China. Father Cervellera quoted leading Chinese government officials as saying that improved diplomatic relations would be "difficult if not impossible" as long as the Vatican maintained relations with Taiwan. The officials also complained that the Vatican seeks to "meddle" in China's domestic affairs.

          The FIDES director noted that the Chinese government has never wavered from these two demands. In fact, he wrote, "the Chinese government has said the same thing for at least 15 years." The Beijing demands, Father Cervellera continued, "overlook the actual reality" in China.

          Chinese Catholics have been subject to a "very harsh campaign" of government repression in recent years, the FIDES editorial reported. Although the Beijing government claims to respect religious freedom, Catholics who remain loyal to Rome-- and worship in the "underground Church" rather than the government-approved "Patriotic Catholic Association"-- have been political, economic, and psychological pressure, as well as occasional arrests.

          Father Cervellera called special attention to the cases of Bishop Su Zhimin of Baoding and his auxiliary Bishop An Shuxin, who were arrested three years ago, and-- in a clear breach of China's own law-- have not yet been either tried or released. The main "offense" committed by Bishop Su Zhimin, FIDES said, was a 1996 public letter to the National Assembly, pleading for real religious freedom. The FIDES director concluded his editorial by suggesting that if Chinese President Jiang Zemin could prove the sincerity of his desire for friendlier relations by releasing the two imprisoned bishops.

          However, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said that the FIDES editorial expressed only "the personal opinions of Father Cervellera, for which he only is responsible." And the Vatican's Secretariat of State indicated a willingness to proceed with efforts to improve relations with Beijng, apart from any discussion of the bishops' status.

          In an interview published by the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran said that the Vatican is prepared to respond to Beijing's insistence on a break in relations with Taiwan. The Vatican's top foreign-policy official indicated that the Holy See recognized the Beijing regime as the real government of China, and would prefer to have the papal nuncio located in Beijing rather than (as at present) in Taipei. Archbishop Tauran also said that the Vatican was prepared for "a dialogue leading to a normalization of relations" with the Communist government.

          As for Beijing's second condition-- the ban on Vatican "meddling" in domestic political affairs, Archbishop Tauran said the recent Chinese statements surprised him. "I do not see how a relationship which is religious in nature, such as that which exists among Catholics and the Pope, could constitute interference in the internal affairs of a country, or bring into question the sovereignty and independence of the state," he said. He added that Chinese Catholics would not create any political difficulties for the government, since they could remain loyal to the Beijing regime at the same time that they maintained allegiance to the Holy See.

          "A normalization of relations would be beneficial not only to the Chinese Catholic community…, but also to the country, which could count on still more active and generous collaboration on the part of Chinese Catholics," Archbishop Tauran concluded.

Articles provided through Catholic World News and Church News at Noticias Eclesiales. Both CWN and NE are not affiliated with the Daily CATHOLIC but provides this service via e-mail to the Daily CATHOLIC Monday through Friday.

March 24, 1999       volume 10, no. 58


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