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Last Updated: Friday, 8 April, 2005, 11:31 GMT 12:31 UK
China's tense links with the Vatican
By Kate McGeown
BBC News

In a rare relaxation of rules, a man prepares a symbolic funeral bier for a service dedicated to the late Pope John Paul II in Shanghai,  April 8, 2005.
Chinese Catholics remain separated from the Vatican
The Pope's funeral was a lavish affair, attended by heads of state from across the globe.

But despite China having a 13 million-strong Catholic community, dignitaries from Beijing were notable only by their absence.

In contrast, Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian chose to go to the service - a move guaranteed to annoy China, which regards Taiwan as part of its territory and disapproves of the island's leaders attending international events.

But Mr Chen's visit had more to do with politics than faith, since it came amid rumours of a rethink in the Vatican's relationship with China and Taiwan.

China broke off ties with the Holy See in 1951, and even today the nation's Catholics face the choice of attending state-sanctioned churches, acknowledging Beijing as their ultimate authority, or worshipping in secret "underground" congregations.

It was one of the Pope's dearest wishes to reach out to China's Catholics, and one he never achieved.

But while China's Catholics remain separated from the Vatican, the ongoing rift between Beijing and the Holy See has its advantages for Taiwan.

The Vatican is one of only 25 states that still have links with Taiwan rather than China, and it is the island's only ally in Europe.

Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian leaving for Rome, 8 April
President Chen knew his presence at the Vatican would anger China

This relationship is extremely important to Taiwan in its claims to be internationally recognised as an independent state.

Since the Pope's death at the weekend, there have been rumours that the Holy See might be ready to cut ties with Taipei in order to re-establish diplomatic relations with Beijing.

Only last week a high-ranking Vatican official, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, was reportedly seen holding talks in the Chinese capital.

But the fact the Vatican allowed a Taiwanese delegation to attend Friday's ceremony shows that the Chinese authorities and the Catholic Church still have many hurdles to overcome before such a rapprochement can be achieved.

Communist repression

"The bottom line is that the Catholic Church does not like communism, and the Chinese authorities do not like the Church," said Professor Richard Madsen, a specialist in Catholicism in China at the University of California, San Diego.

In the 1930s and 40s, the Catholic Church managed to have cordial, even friendly, relations with China.

All that changed in 1949, when the Communists came to power, forcing the Nationalist Kuomintang party to flee to Taiwan.

The Pope was so anti-communist that the government was extremely wary of dealing with him
Professor Richard Madsen, Catholicism in China specialist

The newcomers in Beijing left Catholics, together with other faith groups, in little doubt as to their views of religion.

Churches were destroyed, while priests and worshippers were imprisoned and even subjected to torture.

"They made a major effort to weaken the church, and tightly control what was left of it," Mr Madsen said.

The Vatican broke ties completely with Beijing in 1951, switching its allegiance to Taiwan. Chinese Christians were forced to worship in secret.

After Chairman Mao's death in 1976, the situation improved slightly. Catholics were allowed to worship openly, as long as their services were endorsed by the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which acknowledges Beijing as its authority.

Many Catholics could not accept that - and in the subsequent decades, the underground church has grown rapidly. It is now thought to be 8 million-strong, much larger than the 5 million members of the state-sanctioned church.

Row over bishops

In the 1990s, there were a number of efforts by both the Vatican and Beijing to re-establish ties.

Chinese Catholic in Beijing Cathedral, 8 April
Of the 13m Catholics in China, only 5m attend state churches

Both sides were willing to provide concessions: the Vatican agreed to give up its relationship with Taiwan, while the Chinese government said it would allow the Pope to visit China.

But according to Richard Madsen, the talks collapsed over the issue of ultimate control.

The Vatican insisted it must have final say on the appointment of bishops - as it does in an agreement with communist-controlled Vietnam - but China found the demand unacceptable.

There has been little change since, and according to Christian monitors Catholics continue to be imprisoned or put under house arrest for their faith.

Two priests were arrested just a few weeks ago, according to the US-based Cardinal Kung Foundation.

According to Richard Marsden, the lack of progress has been partly due to the Pope's ailing health, and also because of his role in the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.

"The Pope was so anti-communist that the government was extremely wary of dealing with him," he said.

"The next Pope may not have all that baggage, so there's a possibility that things will change."

So while China's Catholics continue to hope for a breakthrough, in the meantime they are forced to watch secretly from the sidelines as the Papal transition grips the rest of the world.

Maybe one of the most ironic aspects about the ongoing repression is that Catholics in China have far more religious zeal than those in many other countries.

"Although they've had tremendous struggles - perhaps even because of these struggles - Chinese Catholics have a huge fervour and devotion to their faith," said Mr Madsen.

In fact the Communists' efforts to restrict Christian worship could well have contributed to China's churches becoming the very thing Pope John Paul II spent much of his life striving for - communities of people living and working completely for God.

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