Hints of Thaw Between China and Vatican

By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL

International Herald Tribune

May 21, 2005

ROME, May 21 - The Roman Catholic Church and the Chinese government are actively exploring the re-establishment of diplomatic relations, with contacts between the sides warming to the point that the ailing John Paul II quietly received a quasi-official Chinese delegation in the Vatican late last year.

In half a dozen meetings in Rome and Beijing, starting in early 2004, both sides have indicated an increased willingness to yield on differences that have long divided China and the Vatican, which severed ties in 1951, people present at some of the discussions said.

China has indicated that it may allow the Vatican to nominate bishops for the Catholic Church in China. The Vatican has shown a willingness to sever longstanding diplomatic ties with Taiwan, which Beijing considers a breakaway province.

About four million Chinese Catholics worship at state-approved churches, where priests must declare allegiance to the Chinese government rather than to the pope. Millions more worship at underground churches that are loyal to the Vatican and whose members often suffer persecution and harassment.

In re-establishing ties with the Vatican, China would strengthen its prestige as a world power, and aid its claim, in regards to Taiwan, to be the only true China.

So far, the meetings have been unofficial; top officials from the two powers have not met face to face to negotiate. Rather, the exchanges have brought together leaders of the Community of Sant'Egidio, an international Catholic aid group with close ties to the Vatican, and officials from Chinese government policy research groups and the Chinese Communist Party School, the power base of President Hu Jintao.

On Thursday, Pope Benedict XVI publicly took up the effort, telling diplomats at the Vatican that he was "thinking of" nations with which "the Holy See does not yet maintain diplomatic relations," a clear reference to China, diplomats at the meeting said.

"I wish to address a deferential greeting to the civil authorities of these countries, expressing the wish to see them as soon as possible represented at the Apostolic See," the pope said.

Cardinal Pio Laghi, a frequent papal envoy, said in an interview with Corriere Della Sera that "China was certainly a priority" of the new papacy and that the pope was already contemplating a trip to Beijing.

Mario Marazitti, a spokesman for Sant'Egidio, which is based in Rome, said: "The Vatican has become really active on this. There is now a convergence of efforts between our work and the Vatican. It is taking its own direct steps. The other side seems receptive. This is a new situation."

In a briefing in Beijing on Tuesday, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Kong Quan, confirmed China's interest, saying that "we are sincere about establishing ties with the Vatican."

The spokesman said he hoped the Vatican would create "favorable conditions to normalize relations." But he also insisted that the Taiwan issue was vital, saying, "The Vatican must follow the decision of the international community to treat Taiwan as an inseparable part of China."

Relations were at a low point just five years ago, when John Paul canonized 120 Chinese Catholics as martyrs on Oct. 1, the anniversary of the Chinese Communist revolution, provoking outrage in Beijing. But the bitterness from that episode has obviously faded. It is not clear if any of these early initiatives will lead to diplomatic relations, and there is some skepticism about the possibility despite the eagerness by both sides to establish ties.

"I feel the Vatican is showing itself to be very anxious to establish relations with China, to help solve the problems of Chinese Catholics," said Beatrice Leung, a Catholic nun and professor of international relations at the Wenzao Ursuline College in Taiwan.

When President Chen Shui Bian of Taiwan traveled to Rome for John Paul's funeral, he was snubbed by Vatican officials, who refused requests for meetings, she said. He was seated between the first lady of Brazil and the president of Cameroon. "This is strong political language telling mainland China, 'We are ready,' " she said.

Still, Professor Leung said she was skeptical that China would allow Catholic bishops the independence required by canon law and insisted upon in other countries.

"The bishops have to be accountable to the pope and not to civil authorities; they need administrative independence to act as they see fit in their diocese," she said. "I can't see China giving this free hand now because of its fears about social unrest. The church emphasizes the need for social justice and democracy, and that's the last thing they want."

The current optimism stems, at least in part, from the series of meetings between representatives of Sant'Egidio and Chinese scholars and officials, which started early last year. Although there was no official mandate from the Vatican, the pope was "aware" of the efforts, Sant'Egidio officials said.

Likewise, it is inconceivable that officials of crucial Chinese government research institutes would have visited the Vatican without the approval of the country's leaders.

"We are trying to work with them to find terms and a solution that is acceptable to the Vatican and also in line with what the Chinese consider nonnegotiable," Mr. Marazitti said.

Mr. Marazitti said the Chinese seemed to accept the Vatican's right to nominate bishops. "Of course they would be appointed by the Chinese government, but after the Vatican says who to appoint.

A similar system already operates in Vietnam, which also tightly controls religious practice. But there have been occasional standoffs between the Vatican and Vietnam's Communist government, which has sometimes stalled in seating the pope's nominees.

The issue of Taiwan is likely to be less problematic. As early as 1999, a Vatican official suggested a willingness to transfer diplomatic ties if Beijing offered an invitation.

Taiwanese Catholics are already "psychologically prepared," said Professor Leung, and could accept "a religious" rather than a diplomatic relationship.