VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis has signed a two-year extension of an agreement with China on the appointment of bishops, which critics have condemned as a sale to the communist government, a senior Vatican source said Monday.
The two-year interim agreement, which gives the pope the last word on the appointment of bishops, entered into force on October 22, 201
“We think it is wise to extend it for another two years,” the source said, adding on condition of anonymity.
Some Catholics in Asia had feared that China would pressure the Vatican to include Hong Kong after the introduction of a new national security law that significantly expanded Beijing’s reach in the city, but the source said it would not.
“There are no changes,” he said of the deal, the text of which is still secret. Church officials involved in the deal suggested it be renewed and the pope gave the green light, he said.
Last week in Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said China was also eager to innovate, saying “the two sides will continue to maintain close communication and consultation and improve bilateral relations”.
On Monday, Vatican Foreign Minister and top diplomat Cardinal Pietro Parolin told reporters “I believe and hope” that Beijing wanted to renew.
Catholics in China come from more than half a century of division, which saw them split between a state-sponsored “official” church and an “unofficial” underground church that remained loyal to Rome.
Both sides now recognize the pope as the supreme leader of the Catholic Church.
“It is not easy to deal with a communist, atheist regime that sees religion as interference, but what we have is better than nothing at all,” the source said.
China’s constitution guarantees religious freedom, but in recent years the government has tightened restrictions on religions considered a challenge to the authority of the ruling Communist Party.
Critics say this has made the deal a farce. The Vatican says no deal would have risked splitting the church in China.
One of the most obvious critics has been Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former archbishop of Hong Kong, who has accused the Vatican of selling and insulting the memory of persecuted Catholics.
Beijing has pursued a policy of “sinicizing” religion, seeking to eradicate foreign influence and enforcing obedience to the Communist Party, which has ruled China since the victory in a 1949 civil war.
“It is understandable for the Vatican to want to renew itself, because after 1949 there was no dialogue. Now the Vatican has at least this thread, albeit a very weak one, ”said Father Bernardo Cerverllera, head of the Rome-based AsiaNews agency overseeing China.
“But it has borne very little fruit so far, and I hope the Vatican demands more from the Chinese,” he said.
Many see the agreement as a precursor to restoring diplomatic relations after a breach of more than 70 years.
To do this, the Vatican would have to sever full ties with Taiwan, which Beijing considers a random province. The Vatican is the only state in Europe that still recognizes Taipei.
“The road to diplomatic normalization will be very, very long,” the Vatican source said.
Additional reporting by Yew Lun Tian in Beijing and Greg Torode in Taipei; Clip by Alex Richardson