Beijing has so far successfully poached three diplomatic allies of the Republic of China (Taiwan) this year – the Dominican Republic, Burkina Faso, and El Salvador — and some fear Taipei may lose another soon. The Vatican and Beijing are reportedly nearing a deal by the end of this month to reunite China’s Catholics, who are divided between devotion to a state-backed church and an illegal “underground” church that is faithful to Rome.
The communist government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) under Mao Zedong expelled the last Vatican diplomat in 1951, and the Vatican is struggling to return under its own terms. The Vatican has extended diplomatic recognition to the Republic of China since 1942.
Despite its longstanding support, the Holy See mission to the island was reduced to a “charge d’affaires ad interim” after the UN recognized the PRC in 1971 as “the only legitimate representative of China to the United Nations” and expelled “the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek from the place which they unlawfully occupy at the United Nations.” While the Vatican does not have formal diplomatic relations with the PRC, the Holy See has yet to appoint a nuncio, or ambassador, to Taiwan. Taipei does, however, maintain an ambassador to the Vatican, although his presence is listed in Vatican directories under “China.”
Any retraction of the Vatican’s recognition of Taiwan would be a major win for Beijing.
The Vatican and China
Officially an atheist state, China does allow various religions to exist, although each falls under the strict supervision of its State Bureau of Religious Affairs, and religious believers must “be subordinate to and serve the overall interests of the nation and the Chinese people … and support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.”
For Catholicism, this has meant Catholic bishops must be appointed by the state-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, rather than by the Vatican. This policy has resulted in the Vatican excommunicating seven Chinese bishops who were appointed by Beijing without the approval of the Vatican.
The upcoming deal is believed to include an agreement on how the Vatican and Beijing appoint future bishops in China. Under the deal, Beijing would recognize Pope Francis as the head of the Catholic Church in China, with the Pope having the final say in the appointment of bishops and the Vatican finally recognizing the seven “illegal” bishops.
Among the critics of the deal are a group of leading Catholics in Hong Kong and the United States who recently penned an open letter saying they were “deeply shocked and disappointed” by the talks. In their letter, they “urge that any agreement must be grounded in the protection of religious freedom, and an end to religious persecution.”
Persecution of Religion in China
Religious freedom in China has most glaringly been called into question by reports out of Xinjiang, a western “autonomous region” of China. Xinjiang is home to the Uyghur ethnic minority, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority group of some 8 million, out of a total 19 million residents in Xinjiang. The region has a long history of violence and unrest, including rioting, knife attacks, and suicide bombings in recent years, often blamed on Uyghur separatists. China’s newly amended Religious Affairs Regulations have only fueled a fresh round of persecution of Muslim Uyghurs, with a UN panel claiming Beijing “has changed the Uyghur autonomous region into something that resembles a massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy, a sort of no rights zone.”
Islam is not the only religion under attack — this month one of the largest “underground” Protestant churches in Beijing was banned, after refusing requests from state authorities to install closed-circuit television cameras in their building. Other churches have been ordered to display the Chinese national flag and a portrait of President Xi Jinping in their main meeting area. Pastors and ministers have also been subject to exams on the Party’s rules on religious affairs and “core socialist values,” and forced to hand out government propaganda on socialist values to their believers. In September, local authorities raided several Protestant churches in Henan province, with one pastor in Nanyang saying the authorities burned the crosses, bibles, and furniture of his church.
The Vatican and Taiwan
Meanwhile, Taiwan is now home to around 300,000 Catholics, or some 2 percent of the island’s population – including its vice president, Chen Chien-jen. The Vatican’s recognition of Taiwan does lend some moral sustenance to Taipei, its independent-minded citizens, and its small population of Catholics. As the text of the impending deal will not be made public, some analysts fear the Holy See recognition of Taiwan could soon be threatened.
Taipei takes some comfort from its ambassador to the Holy See, Matthew S.M. Lee, who recently stated that high ranking officials in the Vatican have “told us the agreement is aimed at handling Catholic religious affairs in China and carries no political or diplomatic connotations.” And informed sources told America, a Jesuit publication, that the Holy See’s relations with Taiwan were not raised in the present negotiations.
Nonetheless, should Beijing and the Vatican also reach a diplomatic agreement, the loss of the Vatican as an ally of Taipei would likely be viewed as a bigger defeat than any of the recent defections by Taiwan’s other allies, as the Catholic Church retains some moral authority, despite a series of damaging sexual abuse scandals and cover-ups.
More importantly, should the Vatican fail to use the full extent of its powers to stop the growing persecution of those who practice religion in China, and fail to maintain its long-standing diplomatic recognition of Taiwan (where religious freedoms abound), the Catholic Church will lose even more moral authority and trust, both of which may prove difficult to recover.
Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He is now based in Taipei, Taiwan.