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YEAREND-CHINA Dec-10-2007 (950 words) With logo to come. xxxi

For China-Vatican relations, 2007 brought signs of hope amid tensions

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- In many ways, 2007 was a watershed year for relations between the Vatican and China, with signs of hope springing up amid chronic tensions.

Pope Benedict XVI wrote a long letter to Chinese Catholics, new bishops were appointed with Chinese and papal approval, Vatican officials made fresh diplomatic overtures and the church joined others in looking ahead to next year's Olympics in Beijing.

The pope set the stage for new developments in January when he convened a two-day meeting to discuss the problems of the church in China. The free-wheeling discussion included Vatican officials and diplomats as well as representatives from the Chinese Catholic community, including Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong.

The meeting ended with a statement that praised the witness shown by suffering Catholics in China and noted optimistically that almost all bishops and priests today were in communion with the pope.

There was a sense among many participants that after decades of harsh persecution of Catholics loyal to the Vatican, China's communist government was relaxing its stance.

To make the most of that opportunity, the Vatican announced the pope was preparing a personal letter to the Chinese Catholic community. After much internal discussion and revision, the 55-page letter was published June 30, and it was immediately clear that this was a landmark document.

The pope's letter:

-- Established new guidelines to favor cooperation between clandestine Catholic communities and those officially registered with the government, in an effort to promote church unity.

-- Opened the door to registration with the government by bishops and Catholic communities, as long as this did not compromise principles of the faith and church communion. The "clandestine condition" is not normal or desirable for the church, it said.

-- Strongly criticized the limits placed by the Chinese government on the church's activities and invited civil authorities to a fresh and serious dialogue on issues like the appointment of bishops.

-- Formally revoked previous faculties and pastoral directives for the church in China, including a 1988 Vatican advisory that had rejected the government-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and regarded some of its members as non-Catholics.

-- Said, however, that the patriotic association's idea of an autonomous Chinese church that self-manages itself democratically is "incompatible with Catholic doctrine."

-- Encouraged lay Catholics in China to seek out ordained ministers who are in communion with the pope, but said circumstances may sometimes require them to receive the sacraments from those not in communion with the pope.

-- Asked government-registered bishops who have secretly reconciled with the Vatican to make that fact clear to their faithful.

The pope's letter, published in Chinese and several other languages, was accompanied by a Vatican Press Office commentary that reiterated the Vatican's willingness to move its nunciature from Taiwan to Beijing, as soon as diplomatic relations are established with China.

Earlier in the year, the Vatican's representative to the United Nations, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, emphasized the Vatican's desire to normalize relations with China, saying it would help advance religious freedom and foster unity among Chinese Catholics.

"We are ready to go back to Beijing without abandoning Taiwan," the archbishop said. He did not specify what diplomatic formula would be used to accomplish this.

During the second half of 2007, reaction by the Chinese government to the pope's letter was muted, but there was an encouraging concrete sign: Several more bishops were ordained with the approval of both the Holy See and the government-sanctioned Bishops' Conference of the Catholic Church in China.

They included Bishop Joseph Li Shan of Beijing, a diocese considered particularly delicate. After his ordination in September, a Vatican official voiced optimism.

"We hope it is the first page of a long chapter, of a new reality" in church-state relations in China, said Archbishop Fernando Filoni, an assistant secretary of state at the Vatican.

Meanwhile, Chinese Catholic communities were weighing how to implement the pope's letter, especially the thorny issue of whether to register with the government.

In November, China's Communist Party revised its constitution to include a positive reference to religion. The new constitution says: "The party strives to fully implement its basic principle for its work related to religious affairs and rallies religious believers in making contributions to economic and social development."

During 2007, Chinese authorities released at least one bishop from house arrest and freed a diocesan official after 11 months in prison. But there were also reports of new detentions of church personnel, including the arrest of three priests in Mongolia in August.

At least 10 elderly Chinese bishops died in 2007, including the country's oldest prelate, Bishop Joseph Meng Ziwen of Nanning, who was 103. A clandestine bishop unaffiliated with the government-recognized church, he spent several years in a labor camp and a government prison but continued his pastoral ministry even after he turned 100.

In Beijing and other Chinese cities hosting the 2008 Olympics, church officials began preparing for an influx of tourists. For instance, in Qingdao, host of Olympic sailing events, the diocese said it might send priests to the venue to celebrate Mass, and it invited foreign musicians to help its choirs learn to sing in English.

Privately, Vatican officials said they hoped the Aug. 8-24 Olympics would help the church by focusing outside attention on China. At the United Nations in October, Archbishop Migliore said he hoped the Olympics would promote dialogue among cultures and respect for human rights. A month earlier, a Hong Kong diocesan justice and peace official expressed fear that China would tighten its suppression of dissenters during the games.


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