Optimism & Caution: Communist China-Catholic Church pact deserves closer vigil

    26-Sep-2020   
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New Delhi: A big drama given out as 'religious-diplomacy' has unfolded between communists and Christians. Hindus or India may not have much to do with it. But as an emerging global power under Narendra Modi, there ought to be a hawk's eye views on this episode from New Delhi.
 
It is all the more imperative as all that's happening around need not be any conspiracy, but the impact of some such developments may be immense.
 
A new bonhomie has cooked up between the Catholic Church and communist China and do not miss the timing - the US presidential election and of course strategic politics about Taiwan.
 
"The Vatican endangers its moral authority, should it renew the deal", tweeted US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in reference to a pact that was signed in 2018 and is now set to be extended yet again.
 
China claims Taiwan as its own and made it clear that it would not mind using forces, if necessary, to 'take control'.
 
Now let us shift focus to our neighbour and the 'giant' China.
 
The Chinese Catholics are at present 'divided' lot as one group better known as the official one - the so-called Beijing-approved and the other 'underground church'. Religion is perhaps more than just the opium in the dragon land.
 
The supposed 'Vatican experiment' in China is aimed to 'normalise' the Catholic Church's life in China. The Catholic leadership wants to provide a single hierarchy of bishops and priests approved by the Vatican and accepted by Xi Jinping and his authoritarian regime.
 
The China-Catholics deal on the appointment of bishops was first done in 2018 and before it expires now the stage is set for an extension next month.
 
In all that, what has happened on the ground is Catholics in China continue to feel 'harassed' in more ways than one.
 
The Communist regime restricts feasts and prayers and children are 'banned' from entering churches.
 
Since Wuhan virus hit China and the globe, several churches closed under the pretext of the Covid-19 pandemic precautions, have not yet opened.
 
In other words, it is generally understood by Christian leaders that Xi Jinping is only using the pact (that was inked in 2018) to get the Church and its leadership in China under its 'control'. Imagine the 'Hungama' -the 'sickular army' would have made in India had even five per cent of this scenario was true for the Modi regime.
 
"China's constitution guarantees religious freedom, but in recent years the government has tightened restrictions on religions seen as a challenge to the authority of the ruling Communist Party," says a Reuters report.
 
Taiwan has a limited diplomatic role globally and in the region. It's formal ties are only with 15 countries, largely due to Chinese influence and pressure; and notably, the Vatican is Chinese-claimed Taiwan's only European diplomatically. Lately, Taiwan-China conflict has only increased, adding to domestic pressure to Xi Jinping. Therefore, the fear is if China's ties with the Vatican is formalised and strengthened; this may alter Church equation with Taiwan.
 
On the global front, the Trump administration has strengthened engagement with Taiwan.
 
But the 'nervousness' in Taiwan is palpable as there is an apprehension that the Xi Jinping regime has pushed its 'One China' policy rather strongly and as a result, the Church too is likely to toe a similar line and opt for an 'unified Catholic Church'.
 
Taiwan foreign ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou has lately tried to put up a version that actually sums up the paradox. "Our side has continued to receive assurances from the Vatican, that the bishops agreement with China is religious, not about diplomatic relations," she said adding the Catholic leadership has also asked Taiwan "not to worry".
 
But as is well known - the taste of the pudding is in its eating. Moreover, why should Beijing take so much interest in a simple 'religious pact' with the Vatican when we have a situation since 2018 when 'repression' against believers have only worsened and many of them 'jailed'?
 
Another important feature that needs to be scrutinised is can such 'religious diplomacy' make any sense to a Catholic.
 
"The Catholic Church in China is being "murdered" while the Vatican stands idly by. So alleged Cardinal Joseph Zen in an appeal he sent to the world's 223 cardinals in September but only recently made public," - ran a report in 'Wall Street Journal' in February this year.
 
The report had further said Cardinal Zen has always spoken with a "bluntness" and he has been critical of the 2018 agreement between Beijing and Rome. The report argued rather acidly: "Many are desperate to see him discredited. Thus La Civiltà Cattolica, the Jesuit journal close to (fellow Jesuit) Pope Francis, just ran a piece that resurrected the late Bishop of Shanghai, Aloysius Jin Luxian, as a countermodel to Cardinal Zen".
 
US Secretary Mike Pompeo recently penned an article wherein he says: "The human rights situation in China has deteriorated severely under the autocratic rule of Xi Jinping, especially for religious believers. Credible reports have exposed the Chinese Communist Party's program of forced sterilisations and abortions of Muslims in Xinjiang, its abuse of Catholic priests and laypeople...Now more than ever, the Chinese people need the Vatican's moral witness and authority in support of China's religious believers".
 
But as it looks like, the Vatican is looking the other way.
 
From New Delhi's point of view, there is a need for caution and yet there is optimism.
 
Diplomatic billiards often matter more than normal and formal dialogues and geo-strategic discussions.
 
The decision of the Taiwanese leadership - President Tsai Ing-wen - to appoint Ambassador Chung-Kwang Tien, who represented the Taipei Economic and Cultural Centre in India, as new Deputy Foreign Minister must be conceptualised from that angle.
 
"Not only does such an arrangement convey approval for Tien's performance as Taiwan's representative to India over the past seven years, but it also suggests that the relationship with India is likely to become one of Taiwan's most important diplomatic priorities in the future," says an analysis commentary in TaiwanNews.com.
 
Sometimes, optimism comes not without good reasons.