Sino-Vatican deal blamed for tearing down churches in China

Chinese authorities have stepped up a crackdown on clergy for refusing to join the state-sanctioned church

Workers demolish the underground Catholic church in Youtong village in China’s Hebei province late last month. (Photo: FRG)

Posted: Jul 26, 2022 06:44 GMT

Updated: July 26, 2022 at 07:08 GMT

A Catholic priest has accused the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of exploiting the China-Vatican agreement to step up a crackdown on Catholic clergy for refusing to join a public body.

As part of the crackdown, an underground church in Youtong, a village in the Luancheng district of Shijiazhuang city, was demolished last month, said Father Dong Baolu, a priest from Zhengding Diocese in Hebei province.

The church, a large tent that served as a meeting place and place of prayer for thousands of people, was destroyed on June 27, the Mandarin service of Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported. It was located about 20 kilometers from the state capital, Shijiazhuang City.

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The priest, who was hospitalized during the demolition, spoke to reporters days after the incident.

He said the demolition took place after he refused to sign an agreement to join the state-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, unlike most clergy in Zhengding Diocese.

Authorities hired workers to remove the structure as saddened local Catholics watched in silence.

“I am the last among more than 100 priests, certainly they will not spare me”

Father Baolu noted that due to his reluctance to join the CCPA and obey “state religious management” orders, authorities decided to no longer allow local Catholics to have their “meeting point.” .

The priest said most of the clergy in the diocese had signed the agreement to join the government-approved church, but he was reluctant to do so.

“I’m the only one left. Do you think they would let me pass? I am the last among more than 100 priests, certainly they will not spare me,” the priest said as quoted by RFA.

The cleric noted that church members were afraid he would be arrested and taken away, so they insisted that he be hospitalized first.

Father Baolu says he believes the local underground church has faced a precarious situation since the signing of the provisional Vatican-China agreement in 2018.

The secret agreement, initially signed for two years and renewed for another two years in 2020, gives the CCP a say in the appointments of Catholic bishops in China. For the Vatican, the agreement is an effort to unify millions of Chinese Catholics divided between the state-sanctioned patriotic church and the Vatican-aligned underground church.

However, since the signing of the agreement, observers and advocacy groups have documented increasing pressure and persecution on clergy and laity belonging to the underground church to force them to join the CCPA.

“They have been my responsibility. I will continue to take care of them”

This has continued despite the Vatican reportedly asking the Chinese authorities to respect those “conscientious objectors” who oppose the Vatican-China deal.

“The China-Vatican agreement supports the official church but not the underground church. So this policy is like people dozing off and you hand them a pillow. In the past, the Vatican offered the possibility of being in the underground church. Now the government has the chance to get their hands on the underground church, and they would be foolish not to exploit this opportunity,” the priest said.

The priest also pointed out that the pressure has increased on underground clergy since China adopted the “Administrative Measures for Religious Clerics” last year. It requires clerics to enroll with the religious department in a prescribed format set by China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs.

He lamented that with the demise of the underground church, local Catholics feel discouraged.

“Church members have been with me for so many years. They were my responsibility. I will continue to take care of them,” he said.

Pope Francis has said he understands the Sino-Vatican agreement is not ideal, but he still hopes to renew the agreement in October as he considers “dialogue with China” necessary.

Critics say the Vatican should pay attention to the suffering of Chinese Catholics and should not compromise for the sake of the deal.

“I would like to call on the Vatican to listen to the voices of local Catholics and faithful churches in other regions,” said Chinese pastor Liu Yi, now based in California, following the crackdown on the Hebei underground church.

“[The Vatican] should not refrain from criticizing the Chinese government when necessary. By compromising with the Patriotic Church, it must not become an accomplice of autocratic dictatorship and religious persecutors,” he added.

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Jerry B. Hatch