When The Vatican signed an agreement with China on the appointment of bishops in 2018, which was condemned by Cardinal Zen, the former head of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong. He said this would legitimize the Communist Party’s control over Chinese Catholics, like “sending sheep to wolves”. The flock hasn’t been devoured yet, but the government’s jaws are tightening. Authorities have accelerated a campaign to “sinicize” the church, making its architecture, art, and rituals appear more Chinese and, more importantly, making its followers more loyal to the party. Catholics in Hong Kong are also in their sights.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping launched the campaign in 2015, taking into account all of the country’s officially recognized faiths (the other four: Buddhism, Islam, Protestantism and Taoism). The party has been particularly hardline against Muslims, claiming that radical ideas from abroad are inciting religious extremism and separatism among China’s Muslim communities, especially the Uyghurs. The government has sent many Uyghurs to “re-education” camps, removed Arabic-style domes and minarets from mosques, and banned the use of Arabic writing on buildings.
Pressure is also mounting on China’s 12 million Catholics. In 2018, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which oversees the state-sanctioned Catholic Church, launched a “five-year work plan” to promote Sinicization. Like similar programs involving other faiths, this one is designed to ensure that the party’s teachings are prominent. The clergy are required to attend classes to learn about the history of the party as well as Xi Jinping’s ideas and achievements. Officials stressed that this knowledge must be passed on to parishioners.
The Vatican hopes its deal with China will help unify the Chinese Catholic Church, whose membership has long been divided between churches that register with authorities and abide by rules, and those that do not, often labeled as On the “underground” label. But Cardinal Chan worries that the agreement will only subject unregistered churches to the same disruption as officially sanctioned churches. The content of the agreement remains confidential, but it is said to allow the Chinese government to nominate bishops while giving the Vatican a veto.
China has been ramping up pressure on underground clergy to submit to government controls. According to reports, some opponents have been arrested. “The party went around telling underground priests: The Pope has negotiated with us. They used the Vatican as an excuse to force underground priests to register,” said a priest from Hong Kong. He called the agreement “a slap in the face for the persecuted”.
Pope Francis insisted the deal “worked well”. In October, he updated it a second time. However, the actions of the Vatican’s unofficial envoy in Hong Kong show that they know all is not well (the Vatican does not have formal diplomatic relations with China). Earlier this year, their leaders reportedly met privately with the city’s Catholic missionaries to warn that continental-style religious restrictions were coming. Diplomats shipped half-ton archives to Rome containing details of continental missionaries and underground activities.
There are already signs that the sinicization movement is spreading to territories home to hundreds of thousands of Catholics. A year ago, the mainland government office in Hong Kong organized an online meeting between Chinese bishops and Hong Kong Catholic leaders. They discussed sinicization but kept the meeting private. This month, 50 academics and clergy from across China, including Hong Kong, convened a conference on the Sinicization of Catholicism. This is publicly announced. At the meeting, Shen Bin, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Mainland China, praised the Communist Party and its sinicization efforts. Another participant, the former bishop of Hong Kong, Card Tong Han, quoted Xi Jinping as saying that young people in Hong Kong should “find a suitable path”. It’s a euphemism for avoiding protest.
Unlike on the mainland, where few Chinese Catholics can be named, Hong Kong has several prominent figures. They include Hong Kong’s chief executive, John Lee, and his two predecessors. But there are also fierce critics of the party among its prominent Catholics, such as publisher Jimmy Lai and lawyer Martin Lee.
Last year, Mr Li was sentenced to 11 months of probation for organizing pro-democracy protests. Mr Lai was jailed for similar offences. On November 25, the District Court is expected to deliver its verdict in Cardinal Chen’s case: he is accused of failing to register a fund to help pro-democracy protesters. Unlike many of the people he supports, he is likely to be fined. In 2021, mainland researchers published a “blue book” on the religious situation in Hong Kong and southern China. It concluded that a “radical minority” of Christians in Hong Kong supported the unrest that swept the city in 2019 and should be removed from office.
The Catholic Church in Hong Kong has begun self-censorship. In 2020, Card Tong reportedly warned priests to avoid political sermons and removed references to underground bishops from a statement. This year, the diocese stopped holding its annual mass for victims of the 1989 massacre of demonstrators near Tiananmen Square. The priest from Hong Kong said churches there would remain open, but only the meek faithful would remain. ■
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