China's Grip on Religious Expression

Interview With Director of AsiaNews

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ROME, MAY 1, 2005 ( Businessmen who invest in China must be committed to the cause of human rights, says the director of the AsiaNews agency of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions.

Father Bernardo Cervellera, a missionary who has lived in and often visits China, spoke with ZENIT about the thorny problem of religious freedom in the country.

To promote human rights, Father Cervellera appeals to the international community to promote a campaign for the release of Christians locked up in Chinese prisons.

Q: Might not the campaign to release imprisoned priests and other Christians be counterproductive for them, triggering reprisals?

Father Cervellera: It has not been requested by friends of the detained. Totalitarian countries are only afraid of international public opinion. To publish violations of human rights and religious freedom, in particular, is the only way to obtain something.

AsiaNews’ campaign to release 19 bishops and 18 priests, detained in different ways by the Chinese government, has received important support as, for example, from the European Parliament and the bishops’ conference of the United States.

Moreover, we need to tell Westerners who go to do business in China that they should participate in the building of a new civilization, based on the dignity of man. Sometimes businesses do more harm than good in China.

Q: China argues that it does not enjoy relations with the Holy See — that is how it justified its absence from John Paul II’s funeral — because the Vatican has relations with Taiwan. Is this the reason?

Father Cervellera: For at least 20 years, China has continued to say that diplomatic relations with the Vatican don’t exist because the Holy See has relations with Taiwan and that, before establishing relations with the Holy See, the Vatican must sever its relations with Taiwan.

The Chinese government’s second argument is that the Vatican must not meddle in the internal affairs of the Church in China, in particular, in the appointment of bishops.

China does not say, however, that the Vatican has relations with Taiwan because it has no other option. The People’s Republic of China severed relations with the Holy See in 1951 and expelled the apostolic nuncio.

China does not realize that the Holy See has always said that relations with Taiwan are not so important, and proof of this is that the Church does not have a nuncio there, but a «chargé d’affaires.» It is not a genuine embassy; the real embassy was the one in Beijing but, for the time being, nothing else can be done.

Much more serious is the problem of the Pope and the appointment of bishops. In China, such appointments are regarded in terms of a relationship with a foreign power, as they interpret everything in a political, not pastoral, way.

So the difficulties depend entirely on China, which uses the motive of Taiwan so as not to take steps forward in religious freedom.

The government is afraid of Taiwan, an island with 23 million inhabitants, in contrast to China’s 1.3 billion, because Taiwan is a democratic country and sooner or later it might declare independence.

In fact, this problem of unity with Taiwan is an attempt by China to keep the country united, using the trick of nationalism. It is the only ideal that remains in China, a country absolutely divided between rich and poor, coastal and interior zones, cities and fields, where many social tensions nest.

Q: But wasn’t the regulation opened recently on the matter of religious freedom in China?

Father Cervellera: It’s not exactly like that. With the new norms, in force since May 1, Christian communities are allowed to have places of worship, but what the regulation seeks is greater efficiency in controlling, and that’s all.

Among Catholics, no one sees any progress. Orthodox are allowed to register, but this does not impede the government from controlling the freedom of the churches, a fundamental right. Progress is not evident; what is more, China is not taking steps forward.

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