China and Vatican close to a deal on appointment of Catholic bishops, report says

The Vatican last month asked two underground bishops working in China to make way for replacements approved by Beijing.
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Delegation from Beijing expected to travel to Rome in March to finalise details, Italian newspaper reports

Beijing and the Vatican are close to reaching an agreement on the appointment of bishops in mainland China, a move that could end decades of hostilities between pro-government and underground Catholic groups.

According to a report by Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera on Sunday, from late March onwards “every day is a good day [for the Vatican] to sign the agreement with the Chinese authorities”.

The move comes after the Vatican last month asked two underground bishops working in China to make way for replacements approved by Beijing.

A Chinese delegation led by a deputy foreign minister would visit Rome to finalise the agreement after the end of China’s legislative sessions, which get under way on March 5, the report quoted unnamed sources as saying.

The Vatican, which is keen to end the conflict between pro-government Catholics and members of the underground community who only obey Rome, has also notified the United States and Taiwan about its plans, with those two sides expressing concerns about the growing closeness between the Vatican and Beijing, the report said.

Taiwan’s foreign ministry said it was closely monitoring the development of ties between Beijing and the Holy See, and that the ongoing dialogue between the two sides did not have a political aspect.

“The Vatican is an important ally of Taiwan in Europe,” it said in a statement. “The frequent exchanges and co-operation between Taiwan and the Vatican are ongoing … Taiwan will deepen its relationship with the Vatican, and serve as an indispensable cooperative partner for the Vatican’s humanitarian mission.”

As a possible prelude to diplomatic relations between Taiwan’s only ally in Europe and Beijing, a deal on the appointment of bishops might herald another wave of diplomatic rows between the self-ruled island and the Chinese mainland, analysts said.

Cui Hongjian, head of European studies at the China Institute of International Studies, said a diplomatic deal was highly likely.

“The biggest obstacle to formally establishing diplomatic relations between China and the Vatican would be cleared once the agreement [on bishops] was reached,” he said.

Tang Shao-cheng, from National Chengchi University in Taipei, said he would not be surprised to see an agreement between Beijing and the Vatican signed in late March.

Such a deal would be a setback for the pro-independence Tsai Ing-wen government in Taiwan, he said.

In June last year, Panama switched its formal diplomatic ties to Beijing and broke with Taipei, dealing a major setback to the self-ruled island.

Beijing broke ties with the Vatican in 1951. Since then, the Communist Party has closed churches and imprisoned priests.

Catholics can legally practise their religion only in state-sanctioned churches, which are not overseen by the Vatican, and have bishops that are appointed by Beijing rather than the Pope.

But ties between the Vatican and Beijing have warmed under Pope Francis, who has adopted a friendlier attitude towards Beijing’s communist government.

However, retired Hong Kong cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun said the Holy See was “selling out” mainland Chinese Catholics to normalise ties with Beijing.

SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST