Vatican officials have said if the Vatican didn’t hammer out something new, there was a risk of the Catholic Church in China becoming irrevocably split.
Vatican City, of which the Pope is head of state, is the last European government to maintain ties with Taiwan, the self-ruled island democracy the Communist Party claims as part of its territory.
Any agreement to establish formal ties with Beijing would likely require the Vatican to break diplomatic ties with Taiwan and endorse the party’s claim to the island.
Vatican officials have said they hope the 2018 deal will lead to improvements in the conditions for the Chinese Catholic community and not just focus on bishop nominations.
The deal has brought China and the Vatican closer together in the past four years, said Chang Chia-lin, a professor of religious studies at Tamkang University in Taiwan.
“In the future, if China agrees to let the Pope make a visit, I think the possibility for Vatican-China to establish diplomatic relations will deepen,” Chang said.
Despite the closer ties, Catholics practicing outside state churches face great pressure and harassment. Rights groups have criticised the deal, saying the costs outweighed whatever benefits have been brought.
Under Xi, China has launched a crackdown on Christianity in recent years, part of an overall tightening on religious freedoms that has also affected worshippers of Islam and, to a lesser extent, Buddhism and Daoism.
Tens of millions of Chinese Roman Catholics as well as Christians had worshipped for decades in informal “house churches” and their presence was tolerated.
But China’s drive to “Sinicise” religion and give ultimate control to the Communist Party rather than a religious leader has led to informal churches coming under intense pressure to shut down. Worshippers have seen their churches raided, while facing interrogations and surveillance. Police have arrested pastors and priests associated with these churches.
Some, like the Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church, have fled overseas in order to practice their version of their religion.
Despite the crackdown, the number of Catholics and believers of other Christian denominations have grown over the past few decades, experts say.
“In China, an ordinary Christian, or Catholic, they have limited religious freedom. They can go to the 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.
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