China and the Vatican will sign a milestone agreement later this month that is a long battle between the communist leaders in Beijing and the pope over whom the leaders of Catholicism choose in the world's most populous country, according to two people who know the issue , to end.
The reactions to the deal, which gives both parties control over the appointment of the bishops of the church in China, are likely to be strongly divided, with some of them pronouncing a diplomatic coup by the Vatican that moves China closer to the West and warn others of important defeat for the principle of religious freedom.
The controversial deal would include the first official recognition by Beijing that the pope is the head of the Catholic Church in China. In return, Pope Francis would formally recognize seven excommunicated Chinese bishops who had been appointed by the Communist government without Vatican approval.
"It is a small step for China to recognize part of the framework of the Western world," said Francesco Sisci, an Italian who teaches international relations at the Chinese university Renmin in Beijing. "It does not go as far as recognizing what we call religious freedom in the West, but it is a degree of religious autonomy."
Others, including some American diplomats, are concerned that the pope attributes a strong influence on church leadership to a recognized atheist authoritarian regime.
"This is a strange step backwards on the terrain that the Church has fought for not centuries, but millennia," said Sandro Magister, a Vatican expert who writes for the L & # 39; Espresso magazine in Italy. "The Church has managed to free itself from the control of sovereigns and governments on ecclesiastical matters such as the naming of bishops, but now this feat is sharply contradicted by the agreement with China."
The pact with the Vatican can still go through or be postponed due to unforeseen events, said one of the people familiar with the matter. The two parties are close to signing, although the government of China recently acted harshly against Christians and other religious groups, through measures such as closing churches and removing religious symbols such as crosses and the domes of mosques. It is expected that the deal will fuel the criticism of the pope who is already under fire inside and outside the church because of his treatment of clerical sexual abuse.
In practice, it is unlikely that the Chinese communist party will control any religion, even Catholicism, that has relatively few supporters in China. Chinese President Xi Jinping has launched a program to "Sinisize" all religions to ensure that they do not offer alternative viewpoints to the Communist Party. As part of that policy, Beijing strengthens its influence on ecclesiastical agreements and religious teachings to emphasize patriotism.
Chinese leadership has been involved for years in a campaign to reduce the influence of the Dalai Lama, which remains popular among Tibetans for almost six decades in exile. It has also launched a massive detention program for Muslims in the northwest of Xinjiang, where Beijing is concerned about violent separatism fueled by militant Islam. To give too much say to the Vatican risks putting a bad precedent in the eyes of Beijing.
The Vatican had hoped to sign the deal in the spring, but still needed a few months to overcome the resistance of some Chinese Catholics, said one of the people who were familiar with the matter. In particular, the bishop of the southeast Shantou diocese refused to resign in favor of an excommunicated bishop as part of the agreement, said this person.
Pope Francis' quest for the deal reflects his desire for better relations with China – where Christianity is growing rapidly, although most new adherents are Protestant – and put an end to divisions among the Catholics there.
China's estimated 10 million Catholics are legally deemed to worship only in churches approved by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, a state-controlled body that is not recognized by the Vatican. But many Catholics attend unregistered churches in the so-called underground communities led by bishops who are only loyal to Rome.
Beijing is eager for publicity promotion that would tie the Vatican even if the Communist Party continues a systematic campaign to get Catholicism and all other religions under control.
A new agreement would allow the pope to refuse new candidates for bishops, proposed by the Chinese government. The most important condition for the signing of Beijing is that the pope recognizes the seven Chinese bishops who have been excommunicated by Rome in the course of time.
"The dialogue between the Holy See and the People's Republic of China continues," said Greg Burke, spokesman for the Vatican. "There is nothing else to add at this moment."
At a routine Chinese Foreign Ministry press conference on Thursday, spokesman Geng Shuang refused to confirm the status of the deal, but said that China was genuinely engaged in its efforts for better relations with the Vatican.
China broke off diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 1951. Over the past decades, the two parties have cooperated informally to agree on most of the bishop's agreements, but Beijing has appointed bishops periodically without the approval of the pope.
At the last meeting of the negotiating teams, in June in Rome, the Vatican assured the Chinese representatives that Pope Francis would sign the necessary document to cancel the excommunications of the seven government-appointed bishops and recognize them as the bishops of their Dioceses about a week before the deal is signed, said one of the people familiar with the issue.
This recognition would mean that two bishops who have shunned government control, in the dioceses of Shantou and Mindong, step aside in favor of government-appointed bishops. They would be the first so-called underground bishops to be asked by the Vatican.
Shantou Bishop Zhuang Jianjian and Mindong Bishop Guo Xijin could not be reached Friday for comment.
Also as part of the deal is expected that the government recognizes the "underground" Bishop of Qiqihar, near the Russian border, said one of the people. Qiqihar Bishop Wei Jingyi was not available for comment on Friday.
The agreement is explicitly provisional, which means that it is possible to revise after one or two years if one of the parties recognizes the need. Both parties agreed that the text of the agreement will not be published, even after it has been signed, said one of the people.
Critics of the forthcoming deal have cast it as a capitulation by the Vatican.
"I would make a cartoon in which the Pope kneels and offers the keys to the kingdom of heaven and says," Now, please, recognize me as a Pope, "" Cardinal Joseph Zen, a former Bishop of Hong Kong, told an interviewer in March. . "The advisors of the pope advise him to abandon his authority."
The agreement on episcopal appointments would leave unsolved other important questions between the Vatican and China, including the position of most of the more than 30 bishops recognized by Rome, but not by Peking. The restoration of diplomatic relations between Beijing and the Vatican remains a distant objective.
-Kersten Zhang contributed to this article.
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