China feels tug of religious war

2010-12-16Asia Times

BEIJING - After many delays and postponements, at the same time on December 9 that to Beijing's chagrin dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the controversial Chinese Patriotic Association chose its new leadership.

The association of Catholic worshippers is sponsored and supported by the Chinese government, but the Vatican does not recognize it, and for decades it has been at the heart of problems between China and the Holy See.

The conference formally retired its former father-master Liu Bainian by giving him the honorary presidency of the association, and chose two senior executives for key roles in the Catholic Church of China.

The presidency of the association was granted to Fang Xingyao, bishop of Linyi in Shandong province, and presidency of the bishops' conference was given to Ma Yinglin. The first is a bishop recognized by the Holy See, and the second is an illegitimate bishop in the Vatican's eyes, having been appointed without the pope's approval.

The prima facie reading of what happened is the outline of a compromise: one key post went with the pope (Fang) and one against him (Ma). Another element is the choice of assignments. At the head of the association is Rome's man; the head of the bishops' conference, a body dear to the Holy See, went to the man chosen unilaterally by Beijing. This indicates what the Chinese government wants and is willing to give. It wants the recognition and legitimization of Ma, and in return it is willing to give to people "of the Holy See" the post Beijing considers most important: the leadership of the association.

This is actually an old point, raised for years by Beijing. China wants a future for the men of the Patriotic Association, who are afraid they could be sacrificed on the altar of a great agreement between China and the Holy See, and the symbol of their future is Ma's legitimization.

Beijing also wants to continue to have a hand in the mechanics of the church in China and make sure it does not become an "instrument of subversion of the state". For Beijing, in other words, this is a domestic social and political problem. For the church, the issue is religious. Ma's legitimization calls into question the unity of the church worldwide - it is not just a compromise with the Chinese church and some thousands of its unruly followers who are the hardcore cadres of the Patriotic Association.

The distance between the parties is enormous and even here there are some sore points. In recent months, as ties were improving and both parties had reached an agreement on the appointment of bishops, the Vatican wanted to send a representative to Beijing first to work as a liaison.

However, Beijing had agreed with Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou to not curtail the island's diplomatic space by asking the Vatican to switch diplomatic recognition. The Holy See is the most important of the 28 governments still recognizing Taiwan. If Rome had sent an envoy to Beijing, this would have been a slap to Ma and a major setback in Beijing's policy aimed towards peaceful reunification with Taiwan.

Since ties were at a stalemate, to advance the situation, Beijing proposed discreet high-level contacts. Yet the Holy See's lukewarm response was seen as a slight. This also undercut some efforts to rein in hardcore elements in the association. Without further arguments to present, Beijing gave a green light to those in the association who wanted to proceed with greater independence from Rome.

This first led to the recent appointment of Guo Jicai as bishop of Chengde. The argument of the most ardent in the association went like this: We recognized several underground bishops, that is, we totally accepted people chosen unilaterally by Rome, so at least we should have the right to appoint one of our men.

In Rome, they complained that the whole conference was conducted without consultation with the Holy See. Thus, it was in contrast to the spirit of the agreement binding both sides not to make decisions without discussion. Therefore it undermined the basis of trust between the two sides, and now there is little or no trust left. But the process leading to the conference was long, and it is impossible that the leadership didn't know about it. Therefore they must have approved of this conduct. In this case, there is no more room for talk, but only for facts.

The ones adhering to the official church could be considered schismatic, or that could apply to the whole Patriotic Association, much like that defined as the Church of England. That means individual Catholics - believers, priests and bishops - could be forced to take a side: cooperating with the Patriotic Association may mean excommunication, and it may mean they have to go back underground.

The consequences of such a schism could be dire in the Catholic community in China, which accounts for less than 1% of China's population. A war of religions could be looming, and that could add to the many issues cluttering the domestic and international table. It would be a major public relations setback for China. But it would also be a very severe blow for Rome, which for years has been trying to mend fences and avoid what could almost be a repetition of the tragic decision that forced the Jesuits out of China in the 18th century.

How did this situation come about? The issues are with the steadfast people in the association and the underground church. Those with the association feel they will be rejected by Rome and - without assurances, once ties are normalized - squeezed between the government and Rome, with less money and power.

At present, the government treats them with great respect and deference as they represent a force that could switch sides. Possibly as strong are those people supporting the old underground church. They certainly have true intentions and many reasons to distrust the Chinese government, but they also receive massive donations from abroad that they manage free of control from either donors or the government.

These are very small issues when compared with the potentially dire international political consequences these petty choices could provoke. Many times history trips on thin hidden wires and a whole new set of events runs its course. If things are not repaired soon, that could be the case this time. (2010-12-16 Asia Times)


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