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Renewed China-Vatican deal on bishops sets stage for official ties

Hong Kong's Cardinal Zen expects opening of diplomatic relations within 2 years

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who has led the Holy See’s talks with Beijing, attends an Oct. 3 commemoration in Milan of the 150th anniversary of a Catholic mission to China.   © AP

HONG KONG -- The renewal of an agreement between China and the Vatican on the appointment of bishops has put the two governments on course to establish diplomatic relations within two years, according to the former leader of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong.

Taiwan has been watching the development of ties between the two governments warily as the Vatican is Taipei's last remaining European diplomatic ally and would lose the link if Beijing opens ties with the Holy See.

"I think now they [have] started discussing about diplomatic relations" after renewing the agreement on bishops, Cardinal Joseph Zen told Nikkei Asia in a recent interview, citing Antonio Spadaro, a confidant of Pope Francis, regarding the two-year timeline. "It will be big scandal for the common people of Taiwan."

While Vatican officials have not confirmed further talks with Beijing, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Holy See's secretary of state, said in October that the renewal of the deal on bishops was "only a starting point."

For the Vatican, better relations with China brings the possibility of improved access to millions of Catholics.

According to estimates by the Pew Research Center and the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong, between 9 million and 12 million Chinese identify as Catholic. Of those, more than 6 million belong to government-authorized churches.

Zen, a fierce critic of the China-Vatican agreement since it was announced in 2018, traveled several times to the Holy See over the past two years, in part to lobby against any extension.

"What is the purpose of renewing the deal?" Zen asked. The Vatican "got nothing, [but] they have sold the church completely."

Cardinal Joseph Zen said that the opening of formal relations between China and the Vatican "will be big scandal for the common people of Taiwan."

While China and the Vatican agreed on the appointment of two new bishops last year, more than 30 papally designated bishops in China's underground Catholic church remain in limbo, even after the Holy See lifted excommunication orders against seven bishops serving in official churches.

Zen criticized the Vatican's decision to keep the text of the agreement renewed on Oct. 22 secret, as it did with the original.

"The document, if it was known by everybody -- we can know that they surrendered" to Beijing, Zen said. "It is a bad agreement. That is why they don't show anyone."

Beijing, though, has used the Vatican's endorsement of the official church in the agreement as grounds to step up pressure on members and clergy of underground churches.

"These people have no voice," Zen said, calling the renewal "a betrayal."

In his latest Vatican trip in early October, Zen lobbied for the appointment of a new bishop for Hong Kong but was unable to meet the pope.

Hong Kong has been without a bishop since the death of Michael Yeung in 2019. Zen, who served as bishop between 2002 and 2009, said he is concerned that the Vatican will select Reverend Peter Choy, seen as a pro-Beijing figure, to fill the post.

Zen, an outspoken critic of the Hong Kong national security law imposed by Beijing in June, declined to name his preferred candidate.

"I don't want to condemn my friends," said Zen, "Because the one who is going to become bishop must be ready to be a martyr."

Referring to Choy, he said: "Now, with the state security law, this fellow, with the blessing of Beijing, is going to be a very bad bishop. Because he will be in a position he can't escape, they will force him to do all the evil things."

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