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Hong Kong Bishop Says Vatican 'Anxious' to Establish Diplomatic Ties with Beijing

Hong Kong Bishop Joseph Zen (file photo)
The leader of the Hong Kong Catholic Church says the Vatican is "anxious" to establish diplomatic relations with China, and suggests that the Holy See might allow Beijing to have a say in the appointment of bishops.

Hong Kong's Bishop Joseph Zen told reporters Tuesday the Vatican's policy on China is unchanged under Pope Benedict XVI: it is willing to make concessions in order to normalize relations with Beijing. A major sticking point in the establishment of relations has been the appointment of Catholic bishops. The Vatican traditionally insists that it has the sole right to do this.

Beijing, wary of allowing its people to pledge allegiance to the Vatican or any other foreign power, has insisted on appointing the leaders of the officially sanctioned Patriotic Catholic Church.

Bishop Zen suggested that the Vatican might want to compromise on the issue, as it has with the government of Cuba, for example, by allowing the Chinese government to approve the Vatican's appointments.

"Not to surrender completely, but to make some compromise so that the Beijing government may also have some say in that appointment," he said.

Bishop Zen conceded that a switch to relations with Beijing would come at the expense of Taipei, with which the Vatican currently has diplomatic relations.

" The Holy See is ready to switch diplomatic relations with Taiwan to Beijing. Until now the Holy See never unilaterally abandoned any friend," he said. "So this time, it is forced to make a painful decision, because otherwise the China authority would not accept dialogue with the Holy See."

China demands the Vatican cut relations with Taiwan, and refrain from "interfering" in China's internal affairs - by agitating for religious freedom - before relations can be restored. But Bishop Zen says the Vatican should only accept normalization if Beijing will guarantee genuine religious freedom.

"It's unfair to switch diplomatic relations and to start negotiations [on religious freedoms] later. Nobody works that way," added Bishop Zen. "So the Vatican should be sure that the Beijing government is going to grant a real religious freedom."

Ties between Beijing and the Holy See have been severed for more than 50 years, since the Communists took power at the end of China's civil war.

Bishop Zen says the Vatican has tried to discuss a restoration of ties with China in the past, but he says Beijing in recent years has not shown any interest in pursuing the matter despite visits by Vatican officials to the mainland.

The Chinese government says there are five million Catholics in the country, but Western academics say there could be as many as 12 million. The government only allows Catholics to worship in the state-sanctioned church, and officials and followers of the underground, Vatican-affiliated church often face persecution.

Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, but under the "one country, two systems" principle, retains the freedoms it enjoyed under British colonial rule. The Catholic Church in Hong Kong is officially under Vatican supervision and operates without restrictions.