Monday, February 18, 2008

China and the Vatican

Under the over-optimistic title China repents and seeks to woo Pope The Sunday Times reports on further confidential discussions between The Vatican and China regarding the nomalisation of relations.

"TEMPTED by the prize of a historic visit to China by Pope Benedict XVI, the nation’s leaders have authorised a renewed effort in confidential discussions with the Vatican to heal their rift and inaugurate diplomatic ties.

The talks have intensified over recent months, leading some diplomatic observers in Beijing to believe the Chinese may be seeking to announce a deal before the Olympic Games in August.

Liu Bainian, the de facto head of Beijing’s official Patriotic Church, has said on several occasions that he would like to welcome the Pope to China once an agreement has been reached.

While the Vatican says it has received no formal invitation, observers say Liu’s words would have been uttered only with approval from the highest levels.

The announcement of mutual recognition and a papal visit would be a propaganda coup for China. It would counter the negative publicity that has stunned Beijing recently, culminating in the decision by Steven Spiel-berg, the film director, to end his involvement with the Olympics over China’s policies in Sudan.

“The contacts are going ahead and we are somewhat optimistic,” a senior Vatican official said.

Both sides have maintained the utmost discretion, but sources close to the discussions, held in government buildings in Beijing, said they had reached a detailed and businesslike stage.

The senior Vatican official said any idea of a papal visit before the Games start on August 8 was “very unrealistic.” However, diplomats say the mere announcement of an agreement and a future visit would be enough to hand a public relations gift to China’s leaders.

The scene for a potential reconciliation between the Roman Catholic Church and the world’s largest officially atheist state has been set by a series of carefully managed moves.

There are at least 10m Catholics in China but their congregations are divided between the official Patriotic Association and an underground church whose members have endured martyrdom and imprisonment since the communist revolution in 1949.

Last June the Pope addressed a letter to Chinese Catholics in which he praised the devotion of the clandestine church but also urged reconciliation and unity among Christians.

The letter reiterated the need for obedience to the Vatican, which some officials in Beijing interpreted favourably as a sign that the Pope wanted to bring the underground clergy into line for a change in policy.