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The Catholic Church in China is being “murdered” while the Roman Catholic Church stands idly by, wrote Cardinal Joseph Zen, the retired Bishop of Hong Kong, in an appeal he sent to the world’s 223 cardinals. “A totalitarian regime doesn’t compromise,” he said. “They want complete surrender.” (Photo by Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images)

“Before anyone had heard of COVID-19, however, there was mounting concern about the intentions and brutality of the Chinese communist regime,” wrote George Weigel, the distinguished US Catholic commentator.

“… about its herding Uighurs into concentration camps; about its assaults on religious communities, including the defacing and demolition of Catholic churches after the accord with the Holy See was signed; about its aggressive military moves in the South China Sea; about its creation of an Orwellian internal security apparatus through facial-recognition technology; about its ranking the Chinese citizenry according to their political reliability (meaning their acquiescence to what the Chinese Communist Party dictates); about its international espionage, often conducted behind the cover of putatively independent technology companies like Huawei; about its relentless digital attacks on Taiwan; and about the global Chinese ‘Belt-and-Road’ initiative, which financially shackles Third World countries to the Beijing regime.”

Despite this grisly record, in 2018 the Vatican signed a pact with China. The pact was intended to resolve the historic division between China’s “underground church”, in which bishops were approved by Rome but rejected by Beijing, and China’s “official” bishops not recognized by the Vatican. The first group represents the real Chinese Church, the second is a puppet of the Chinese Communist Party. The Catholic Church signed the pact to reconcile and to “normalise” the status of the Catholic Church in China. The risk, of course, is that the Vatican has become a “mouthpiece” for Beijing.

Some anti-regime bishops have already been replaced by clergy closer to Beijing. One is Vincent Guo Xijin, an underground bishop recognized by Rome, but not by the Chinese government; Guo gave his post to Vincenzo Zhan Silu, who is recognized by the Communist Party. Another is the underground bishop Pietro Zhuang Jianjian, also asked by the Vatican to make way for the China-approved bishop Giuseppe Huang Bingzhang. It seems that Rome is replacing Catholic dissidents with clergy who are more meek. John Fang Xingyao, President of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, at a Communist Party-sponsored event, actually said that “love for the homeland must be greater than love for the Church”.

The Catholic Church in China is being “murdered” while the Roman Catholic Church stands idly by, charged Cardinal Joseph Zen, the retired Bishop of Hong Kong, in an appeal he sent to the world’s 223 cardinals in September but that only now was made public. Cardinal Zen, Hong Kong’s bishop from 2002 to 2009, lives on the east side of the island. “A totalitarian regime doesn’t compromise,” he said. “They want complete surrender.”

The Chinese regime knows that Cardinal Zen is dangerous for its ideology and dictatorship. Liu Bainain, a vice chairman of the state-run church, remarked, “If China’s bishops were all like him then it would be dangerous like Poland” — a reference to the former Pope John Paul II’s challenge to Soviet communism in Europe. “Bishop Zen, he told Reuters, “is widely known as an opponent of communism”.

The cardinal seems to fear that millions of Catholics in China will feel abandoned and betrayed. “What are they going to do about the underground bishops not recognized by China?”, asked Rev. Bernardo Cervellera, a member of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions. “Or those that are in jail, or those who don’t want to belong to the patriotic church, what will happen to them?”. These are the questions Cardinal Zen is also asking and that the Vatican is refusing to answer. Bishop Joseph Fan Zhongliang of Shanghai, for instance, who passed away in 2014 but was a prominent leader of China’s underground Catholic Community, was imprisoned for 20 years in Qinghai province, where his job was to carry corpses in a cemetery.

Cardinal Zen, in his appeal to the Vatican, detailed some of the Chinese regime’s crimes:

“Christian churches have been destroyed by authorities; Two million Christians and Buddhist are being kept in detention; Christian teachings have been reinterpreted according to socialist doctrine; Churches in Hunan province were forced to remove displays of the Ten Commandments and replace them with quotes of President Xi Jinping; Churches in Jiangxi province were ordered to remove biblical paintings and crosses and replace them with portraits of the president; in some areas, all public displays of Christmas decorations have been banned; in December, Christians belonging to ‘house churches’ not recognized by the government were ordered to refrain from publicly celebrating Christmas”.

It is “China’s war on Christians“. Chinese President Xi Jinping has stated that all party members should be “firm Marxist atheists and never find any of their beliefs in any religion”.

Chinese authorities use cranes to take down crosses and other Christian symbols, to be replaced with the Chinese flag and photos of President Xi and former Communist Party leader Mao Zedong. Images of the Virgin Mary have also been replaced with pictures of “People’s Leader” Xi, while the Ten Commandments have been painted over with quotes from Xi. The regime has even flattened entire churches. Many Catholic bishops have “disappeared“. Sermons given in regime-sanctioned churches will now most likely exclude passages of the Bible deemed politically subversive (such as the story of Daniel) or include Communist propaganda. Last December, a Chinese court sentenced a priest to nine years in prison after he called the Chinese Communist Party “morally incompatible with the Christian faith. The fate of some heroic bishops is not known. James Su Zhimin, who spent almost 24 years in Chinese prisons, is still being detained.

Cardinal Zen, who last month was awarded the prestigious “Wei Jingsheng Chinese Democracy Champion Prize” for 1919, named after the outspoken Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng, is one of the most prominent critics of the Chinese regime. According to Cardinal Zen:

“In 1974 before the end of the Cultural Revolution, when I managed to return to my home to visit my relatives whom I hadn’t met for 26 years, I saw unimaginable things! The whole country had become a concentration camp! Religions had disappeared, churches closed or turned into factories, the church of my parish had become the ‘people’s shop’, where food and other goods were sold. After economic reforms and the opening of the country, I was able to teach in many seminars in China between 1989 and 1996 and saw how the party humiliated the Catholic people and their bishops. Today there are few Marxist concepts left in this communist country: only atheism, persecution and dictatorship survive”.

Some Catholic leaders, nonetheless, seem fine with that. The head of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, described the Chinese regime as the “best implementer of Catholic social doctrine”.

Cardinal Zen was granted enormous discretion by former Pope Benedict XVI to speak out on issues involving the church in China. It was Pope Benedict XVI who nominated him as a cardinal; the Chinese regime called his elevation a hostile act. Under Pope Francis, Cardinal Zen has become a dissident. When the Vatican signed the agreement with China, Cardinal Zen flew to Rome to make a personal appeal to the Pope. He was ignored.

How did the Vatican react to Cardinal Zen’s new cry? By criticizing him. The Dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, attacked Cardinal Zen. “The Church”, Cardinal Zen explained, “is under persecution [in China]. Both the official Church, and the underground. Actually, the underground is doomed to disappear. Why? Because even the Holy See is not helping. The older bishops are dying, there are less than 30 bishops left in the underground Church, and no new priests being ordained”.

Cardinal Zen then pointed at Pope Francis:

“The pope doesn’t know much about China. And he may have some sympathy for the Communists, because in South America, the Communists are good guys, they suffer for social justice. But not the [Chinese] Communists. They are persecutors. So the situation is, humanly speaking, hopeless for the Catholic Church: Because we can always expect the Communists to persecute the Church, but now [faithful Catholics] don’t get any help from the Vatican. The Vatican is helping the government, surrendering, giving everything into their hands”.

According to Cardinal Zen, “naturally optimistic about communism, he (Pope Francis) is being encouraged to be optimistic about the Communists in China by cynics around him who know better”.

This is not the first time that Cardinal Zen has attacked the Vatican’s diplomacy. He has already called on Secretary of State Pietro Parolin to resign. “They’re giving the flock into the mouths of the wolves. It’s an incredible betrayal”, Cardinal Zen said. He described Parolin, the highest-ranking diplomat in the Vatican and the chief negotiator in the agreement with China, as someone who despised heroes of faith. “He should resign. I don’t think he has faith. He is just a good diplomat in a very secular, mundane meaning”. Parolin also gave an unprecedented interview with the Global Times, the English-language propaganda organ of the Chinese Communist Party.

“No one, it seems, can resist the lure of the great market of China, for deodorants, cars — or congregants, not even the Vatican”, noted the Japanese scholar Yi-Zheng Lian. The pact with China, for instance, already seems to have led to Pope Francis’s silence concerning the Hong Kong protests. In an interview with the French Catholic magazine La Vie, Cardinal Zen attacked the Vatican’s silence on Hong Kong:

“Not a word has come out of the Holy See since the beginning of this mobilization. Rome no longer dares to criticize the Chinese government, to which it has sold off the Chinese Church.”

During the Cold War, some cardinals in Rome tried to appease the Soviet Union. In Czechoslovakia, the Vatican forbade the clandestine ordination of priests in an “underground” church that operated outside the government-approved hierarchy. The Vatican also sidelined the famous Hungarian anti-communist Archbishop József Mindszenty in favor of a deal with the regime. This seems to be what China would like to do with its Christians. With the election of Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, who took the name Pope John Paul II, the Vatican changed its policy, while his doctrinal chief, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — the future Pope Benedict XVI — rejected Marxism.

One year after Pope John Paul’s election, the Secretariat of the Communist Party Central Committee met to assess the impact of his pontificate and issued a directive to the KGB: “Use all possibilities available to the Soviet Union to prevent the new course of policies initiated by the Polish pope”. The order was signed by the chief ideologist of the Communist Party, Mikhail Suslov, and by two leaders of the Soviet Union, Konstantin Chernenko and Mikhail Gorbachev. Moscow was not afraid of the Catholic appeasers, but of the new challenger-in-chief in Rome.

The Soviet Union collapsed partly because the Vatican challenged it. Pope Benedict XVI saw the danger of China. “I believe that the fundamental ideological tendencies of Marxism have survived the fall of the political form they have had to date”, Pope Benedict XVI said.

“They too will continue to determine the spiritual conflict. First of all, we must not forget that important countries are governed by Marxist parties: China, Vietnam, North Korea, Cuba”.

The US Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, said a year ago that the Chinese regime “is at war with faith“. The Vatican can still support dissidents such as Cardinal Zen and reject a dangerous appeasement with Beijing. If not, the Chinese regime will be able to obliterate and further enslave Christianity to consolidate the country’s cruel dictatorship.

Giulio Meotti, Cultural Editor for Il Foglio, is an Italian journalist and author.

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