Taipei, Taiwan– Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first trip abroad since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic will overlap with a visit by Pope Francis to Kazakhstan, although the Vatican says they are not expected to meet.
Xi’s state visit on Wednesday comes just weeks before a very important political meeting in China where he is expected to take up a third term as he consolidates his grip on power. The pope is in Kazakhstan until Thursday for a state visit and an interreligious congress of world religious leaders.
Asked during his flight to Kazakhstan about a possible meeting with Xi, the pope said: “I have no news on this. But I’m still ready to go to China.
The two have been in the same neighborhood before and have not met, including in New York for the United Nations General Assembly in 2015 and Xi’s visit to Italy in 2019.
The Vatican and China are due to renew their 2018 agreement on bishop appointments at the end of this month. A Vatican delegation recently returned from Beijing and Holy See officials expect the deal to continue.
Here’s a look at Beijing’s complicated relationship with the Vatican and the conditions worshipers face in China.
WHAT IS CHINA’S RELATIONSHIP WITH THE VATICAN?
China has no diplomatic relations with the Vatican, since the ruling Communist Party demanded that Roman Catholics in China sever their ties with the Vatican in the 1950s. For decades people could only worship in churches affiliated with the party-controlled Patriotic Catholic Association.
The Association follows Vatican doctrine and sends theologians to Rome for study sessions, but the ruling party rejects any role for the pope in selecting bishops in China or running churches.
The two sides reached an agreement in 2018 that gave the Holy See the final say on Beijing’s proposed bishops, but details were never released. Francis said the process involves dialogue, but he has the final say.
Beijing has long insisted that it must approve appointments within the framework of its national sovereignty. The Vatican insisted on the divine authority of the pope to choose the successors of Christ’s apostles.
Vatican officials have said that if the Vatican does not forge something new, there is a risk that the Catholic Church in China will split irrevocably.
Vatican City, where the pope is head of state, is the latest European government to maintain ties with Taiwan, the self-governing island democracy that the Communist Party claims as part of its territory. Any deal to establish formal ties with Beijing would likely require the Vatican to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan and endorse the party’s claim to the island.
HOW HAS THE BEIJING-VATICAN RELATION DEVELOPED IN RECENT YEARS?
Vatican officials said they hoped the 2018 agreement would lead to improvements in conditions for the Chinese Catholic community and not just focus on bishop appointments.
The agreement has brought China and the Vatican closer over the past four years, said Chang Chia-lin, a professor of religious studies at Taiwan’s Tamkang University.
“In the future, if China agrees to let the Pope pay a visit, I think the possibility for the Vatican and China to establish diplomatic relations will deepen,” Chang said.
Despite the closer ties, Catholics practicing outside state churches face heavy pressure and harassment. Rights groups have criticized the deal, saying the costs outweigh the benefits.
Joseph Zen, a prominent Catholic cardinal from Hong Kong who had been a staunch critic of the Chinese Communist Party, was arrested in May as part of a crackdown on dissent in the semi-autonomous Chinese city.
The Vatican issued a statement of concern – a rarity given its delicate relationship with Beijing.
“It seems likely that in order to maintain the positive diplomacy necessary to pursue the Sino-Vatican agreement, the Vatican was unwilling to condemn the Chinese government’s ongoing crimes against humanity targeting Uyghurs and the suppression of human rights. man in Hong Kong – even when he affected prominent Catholics like Cardinal Zen,” said William Nee, Research and Advocacy Coordinator at Chinese Human Rights Defenders.
An estimated one million or more Uyghurs and other people from predominantly Muslim ethnic groups were detained in internment camps in the western region of Xinjiang, which the human rights body said. UN man, could constitute “crimes against humanity”.
WHAT IS THE SITUATION OF CHRISTIANS IN CHINA?
Under Xi, China has launched a crackdown on Christianity in recent years, part of a general tightening of religious freedoms that has also affected adherents of Islam and, to a lesser extent, Buddhism and Taoism.
Tens of millions of Chinese Roman Catholics as well as Christians had worshiped for decades in informal “house churches” and their presence was tolerated.
But China’s drive to “sinicize” religion and give ultimate control to the Communist Party rather than a religious leader has led informal churches to come under intense pressure to close. Christian worshipers have seen their churches raided, while facing interrogation and surveillance. The police arrested pastors and priests associated with these churches.
Some, like the Holy Reformed Church of Shenzhen, have fled overseas to practice their version of their religion.
Despite the crackdown, the number of Catholics and believers of other Christian denominations has increased in recent decades, experts say.
“In China, an ordinary Christian, or a Catholic, has limited religious freedom. They can go to church for mass and prayer, and this so-called limited religious freedom, and it’s under the church which is controlled by the Communist Party,” Chang said.
Associated Press writers Joe McDonald in Beijing and Nicole Winfield in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, contributed to this report.