Chinese Faithful Any Freer?

Religious Liberty Expert Offers Analysis of Papal Letter

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By Carrie Gress

ROME, MARCH 14, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Given the increasing number of arrests of Christians in China, it is hard to see if Beijing is making any progress in granting religious freedom, said an independent expert on China's cloudy relations with the Vatican.

Raphaela Schmid, director of the Becket Institute, affirmed her doubts about any increase in religious freedom in Beijing, as the commission on the Church in China, established by Benedict XVI, met this week to consider the effects of the Pope's letter of last May 27 addressed to the Chinese faithful.

The commission, made up of heads of dicasteries of the Roman Curia, along with members of the Chinese episcopate and religious congregations, considered, from Monday through Wednesday, the "Church's mission as 'instrument of salvation' for the Chinese people" in light of the papal letter, the Vatican reported.

Schmid and the Becket Institute aim to explore ways to educate the public about contemporary problems of religious liberty. The situation in China is one area of focus.

The scholar told ZENIT that she considers the Vatican commission's meeting this week as a sign "that the Holy Father is giving the [Chinese] time, and is giving his message time to sink in. Feedback will be necessary before new steps can be taken."

She explained, "The letter of the Holy Father made clear that the Church does not have a political agenda and asks Catholics to be good citizens. At the same time the letter left no doubt that compliance with the state authorities is not acceptable when they interfere unduly in matters of faith and discipline of the Church."

The Chinese government allows religious practice in the country only with recognized personnel and in places registered with the Religious Affairs Office and under the control of the Patriotic Association.

"The Pope's letter very clearly described the Patriotic Association's [PA] attempt to implement independence, autonomy, self-management and democratic administration of the Church as 'incompatible with Catholic doctrine,' which makes it hard for those 'open' Church Catholics who see collaboration with the PA as compatible with loyalty to Rome," Schmid contended.

Visible and concrete

Some of the faithful in China worship only "underground," rejecting any collaboration with the Patriotic Association. Last July, four "underground" priests were arrested for refusing to join the association. Other faithful affirm both their fidelity to Rome and a certain cooperation with the civil authorities.

Schmid claimed that Benedict XVI's message to this latter group was a key point of the letter.

"What was more important to my mind," she stated, "was that the Pope asked all bishops of the reconciled 'open' church to be in 'visible and concrete communion with the Pope.' This is significant, because some proclaim loyalty to Rome while at the same time subscribing to the independence of the Church from Rome that is prescribed by the Patriotic Association."

"Here some follow-up and some evaluation of recent developments may be very useful for the Vatican to see how serious these bishops and priests are about their Roman Catholicism and religious freedom," the scholar added. "The Pope's letter outlined how real freedom of religion is made difficult as long as the PA controls the Church and the bishops' conference."

"It's hard to see whether Bejing is making any progress toward granting real religious freedom," Schmid concluded. "In the run-up to the Olympics we've seen the biggest purge of foreign Christian missionaries since the take-over of the Communists and more arrests of Chinese underground Christians last year than in the years before."

[Kathleen Naab contributed to this report.]