“The case of Chen Guangcheng tells us that the lack of religious freedom is only one aspect of the general lack of freedoms for people under the dictatorship of a corrupted society,” said Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun. “May our leaders wake up and work hard for reform before it is too late.”
Speaking to Newsmax on May 24 — a worldwide day of prayer for Chinese Catholics — the outspoken former bishop of Hong Kong naturally applauds the dramatic release of Chen, the blind human rights activist who has campaigned against the huge number of forced abortions in China. But for Zen, it is religious freedom — a human right that underpins all the rest — which exercises him most.
And like many others, he shares the view that religious liberty remains a distant goal in the country, despite Pope Benedict XVI writing a letter to Chinese Catholics in 2007, encouraging them in their hardships and clarifying the Church’s position in relation to the Communist state.
News emerged this week of the suppression and persecution of “underground” priests and religious in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. According to UCA News, an Asian Catholic news agency, diocesan administrator Father Joseph Gao Jiangping had been tortured and held in solitary confinement since February 15 in a bid to have him join the Catholic Patriotic Association — the official state-run Catholic church that does not accept the authority of the Pope.
Meanwhile, reports of persecution of other “underground” Catholics, loyal to Rome, continue elsewhere; bishops of the official church are sporadically “ordained” without the Pope’s permission; and Holy See-Beijing relations remain chilly at best. “Nothing has changed since 2007,” a Vatican official told Newsmax, “but this is a process that could take twenty or thirty years.”
For Cardinal Zen, it is crucial that the underground Church remain uncompromising in its demand for religious freedom, and that members of the patriotic association cease asserting they are in communion with the Pope and yet at the same time support an independent church. The Pope’s 2007 letter was supposed to bring such contradictions to an end. Yet the situation remains unchanged partly, Zen believes, because the Vatican has given Chinese bishops conflicting messages, or appeared to encourage them to think that some degree of compromise with Beijing was possible.
The 80 year-old cardinal has been a critic of certain approaches by the Vatican, as often those who can best advise it are unable to leave China. He believes that, at least in recent years, Vatican officials have tended to compromise, making the same “ostpolitik” mistakes the Church made when it tried to make peace with post-war Communist Russia and Eastern Europe. But he has great confidence in Pope Benedict, seeing his letter as “a model of balance” between upholding the Church’s principles and offering necessary pastoral sensitivity to Catholics who have made mistakes, and even to the Chinese government.
In a May 23 interview with Eglises d’Asie, a French website, Zen explained the persecution of Catholics is actually becoming “more real and concrete.” The government is showing no improvement, he said, but rather employing “increasingly dangerous and skilled methods.” Instead of just threatening people, he said they are now “leading them into temptation. They do not want to make martyrs, they want to encourage renegades. For the Church, this is so much worse. They have the means to test people — good, weak, or timid — and reduce them to obedience. Their tools are money, but also prestige, honor, or positions in society.”
Zen said this was already being witnessed five years ago, which is one reason why Benedict XVI established the day of prayer on May 24. The initiative was inspired by the example of the apostles who, during times of persecution, turned first to prayer. The observance also fittingly falls on the same day as a Church devotion to Mary — Our Lady Help of Christians.
For many observers, China needs to be convinced that religious freedom is genuinely in its best interests. Lord Alton of Liverpool, the British veteran campaigner on China, said that while China is a great country, as she grows economically, “she will need the values which Christians cherish.”
“For the good of China's wonderful people, the Catholic Church and the Chinese authorities must embrace one another and harness the energy of Catholics rather than persecuting them,” he said.
Yet the Chinese government's reaction to the Pope’s letter was very negative.
“Beijing did not want the Holy See to insinuate [the idea] that the Chinese Church is persecuted by civil authorities,” Zen said. But he has no regrets about the letter, which he said was “totally new and unique” and “a very eloquent sign” of how much Benedict XVI cares for the Church in China — an issue on which he is informed “in great detail.”
For now, he believes it is important to hope and work for reconciliation between the underground community and “their brothers who are now still under the slavery of the patriotic association.”
“Humanly speaking, we see no intention of the government willing to recognize religious freedom,” he told Newsmax. “But God, through Our Lady Help of Christians, can work miracles.”
Edward Pentin began reporting on the Vatican as a correspondent with Vatican Radio in 2002. He has covered the Pope and the Holy See for a number of publications, including Newsweek, and The Sunday Times. Read more reports from Edward Pentin — Click Here Now.
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