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Is the Vatican Turning a Blind Eye to Chinese Human Rights Violations?

FILE - Pope Francis leaves after turning away from the window of the apostolic palace overlooking an empty Saint Peter's square after delivering his Angelus prayer at the Vatican, March 22, 2020.
FILE - Pope Francis leaves after turning away from the window of the apostolic palace overlooking an empty Saint Peter's square after delivering his Angelus prayer at the Vatican, March 22, 2020.

The Vatican is likely to renew next month an agreement with Beijing governing the appointment of Roman Catholic bishops and the status of churches in China, according to officials in the Holy See.

But signs a renewal is likely of the largely secret accord is prompting growing unease in some quarters in the church. Critics say renewing the deal opens the Vatican to the charge that it is kowtowing to the Chinese Communist government by turning a blind eye to human rights violations in China.

The accord governing the terms of the Catholic Church’s operations in China was a source of controversy when it was signed, as the full details of the 2018 agreement, due to expire in September, have never been published.

Claims last month by a private intelligence group, Recorded Future, a threat intelligence firm, that Beijing-directed cyber-spies have been hacking Vatican computer networks in an apparent espionage operation to gather intelligence on the Holy See’s negotiating positions ahead of talks do not appear to have caused Vatican officials alarm, nor prompted them to rethink. Chinese officials have denied the hacking allegations, dubbing them “groundless speculation.”

“The agreement is beneficial for the faithful in China, it helps us protect them,” a Vatican official told VOA. He says the accord is crucial to ensure that there is legal protection for Catholics in China. As part of the 2018 agreement, Pope Francis officially recognized eight bishops named by the Chinese government without his prior approval.

In June, Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, a Vatican diplomat and a leading negotiator of the 2018 agreement, gave the first public indication that the accord was on course to be renewed. In an interview with the Stanze Vaticane program of the Italian television network, TGCOM24, said the tone of the Vatican’s relations with China has been one of “respect, clarity, co-responsibility and foresight.”

“We are trying to look toward the future, and we are trying to give to the future of our realizations a deep and respectful basis, and I would say that we are working in this sense,” he added.

Not all are onboard

But there’s mounting criticism of the accord in church ranks. John Allen, editor of Crux, an influential US-based online Catholic newspaper, says, “Francis is facing growing pressure to speak out on China’s varied human rights abuses, including its constrictions of religious freedom.” In a column Sunday Allen said it seems “anomalous that Pope Francis, generally the champion of the underdog and the oppressed, is pulling his punches when it comes to China.”

Allen fears that that the pope and his inner circle are partly resistant to calls for Francis to speak out on Chinese human rights violations, including the forcible detention of more than a million Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority in northwest China, because he is being urged to by cultural conservatives in the church who are opposed to his social and political agenda for change. He says the Pope is making the mistake of distrusting the validity of an argument because he distrusts the people advancing the argument.

Holding back

Pope Francis has also drawn fire from church critics for his cautiousness in confronting the Chinese government on a range of issues they believe he should. He has remained virtually silent on the fate of the Uighurs. Since 2015, more than a million Uighurs have been detained in what Chinese officials describe as “vocational education centers” for job training, but critics and rights campaigners describe as internment or concentration camps, part of an effort to forcibly assimilate the Uighurs.

The Vatican has also been circumspect when it comes commuting on the Chinese government’s security crackdown on Hong Kong, the former British enclave handed back to Beijing in 1997. Last month, mild criticism of the crackdown was included in an advance copy given to reporters of an Angelus address Francis planned to make, but at the event he pulled back and excluded the remarks about Hong Kong.

“Almost every Sunday, as he prays the Angelus, he [Francis] rightly references some injustice somewhere in the world,” noted Benedict Rogers, co-founder of Hong Kong Watch, a human rights non-governmental organization based in Britain. “One country—and one country alone—is noticeable by its absence in his prayers and statements: China,” Rogers wrote last week in Foreign Policy magazine.

Longer term goals

The accord, say Francis’ critics, is part of the Holy See’s long campaign to achieve full mutual diplomatic relations with Beijing but that Vatican diplomats are making a mistake in banking on the renewed accord giving them any leverage on Beijing. That was a mistake a previous pope made, says British commentator Dominic Lawson, of the 1933 concordat signed between the Holy See and the Roman Catholic Church.

Vatican advocates of renewing the 2018 deal say the Church has a duty to ensure protection of the 13 million Catholics in China. They also argue that by strengthening ties between the Holy See and Beijing, the Vatican can wield influence behind the scenes. Says a Vatican diplomat, who asked not to be identified, “Not everything that’s achieved is accomplished by shouting.”

Selling out Catholics?

That view has not satisfied some members of China’s underground Catholic church, which refuses to align with the government-approved Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. They say the Vatican is selling them out. When the accord was signed in 2018 Cardinal Joseph Zen, the retired archbishop of Hong Kong, accused the Vatican of betraying the faithful and of “selling out the Catholic church in China.”

The Chinese government recognizes five religions — the quid pro quo being the secular authorities retain control over personnel appointments, finances and publications. Other religions the government does not control are categorized as “evil cults” and members are at risk of imprisonment. The Communist authorities have demolished hundreds of houses of worship of groups that refuse to fall into line.

In March, Human Rights Watch issued a report noting Francis had praised China’s “great commitment” to contain the coronavirus outbreak. The rights group said: “Despite his call on world leaders to ‘place human rights at the heart of all policies’ and in contrast to his vocal criticism of Western governments’ border control policies, the pope has kept mum on the Chinese government’s serious human rights abuses, including the persecution of Christians and other religious groups across China and the severe repression in Xinjiang. Many Catholics in Hong Kong have urged him to mention the protests there, but Francis has avoided doing so. Pope Francis’ silence is particularly troubling as Beijing intensified repression on religious freedom in China.”