Originally published in November 2020 - with a final version in February 2021 - by the Chinese State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), new guidelines, titled “Administrative measures for religious personnel,” came into effect on May 1, 2021, announced the English-speaking site Crux on May 3, 2021.
These “administrative measures” provide for the creation of a national database with information on religious personnel indicating rewards and punishments distributed, and full details of their ministry, repots Elise Ann Allen of Crux.
Set forth in seven chapters of 52 articles, these rules are applicable to all those who exercise a religious function (bishops, priests, Buddhist and Taoist monks, etc.) and require everyone to be officially registered with the government.
All must “love the motherland, support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, support the socialist system, respect the constitution, laws, regulations, and rules.”
Religious personnel are also required to “practice the core values of socialism, adhere to the principle of independence and self-management of religion, and adhere to China's religious policy [‘sinisation’], maintain national unity, ethnic unity, religious harmony and social stability.”
And therefore everyone must participate in the fight against “illegal religious activities, religious extremism, and resistance to infiltration by foreign forces using religion.”
The preliminary announcement in November 2020 of these new “administrative measures” came one month after the Vatican renewed its two-year interim agreement with China on the appointment of bishops. An agreement whose terms have never been made public.
The Vatican Accord to “Guarantee Normal Life in the Church in China”
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State of the Holy See, gave an interview to Spanish radio Cope, broadcast on April 5, 2021. He spoke in particular on the fruits of the Agreement between the Vatican and China . “The Church in China represents a fundamental part of the Catholic Church and… everything that has been done and is being done, aims to protect this community which is still small but which has great strength and vitality,” declared the Secretary of State.
“All we do is guarantee a normal life in the Church in China” by ensuring “spaces of religious freedom” and of communion “because we cannot live in the Catholic Church without communion with the successor of Peter… We therefore look at the Church in China with great respect, also for its history,…a history that involves a lot of suffering,” he added.
While the measures taken “have not solved all the problems that still exist and will probably take a long time, they are a step in the right direction, towards conciliation within the Church,” he said bluntly.
Sino-Vatican Agreement Betrayed?
To date, many observers, says Elise Ann Allen, have expressed concern that the new Chinese rules on religious personnel increasingly restrict religious freedom and are therefore in direct contradiction with the Sino-Vatican Agreement on the appointment of bishops.
Thus, she adds, Fr. Bernardo Cervellera, editor-in-chief of the Italian agency AsiaNews and expert on Chinese affairs, wrote in his editorial of April 27, that after the renewal of the Agreement, the actions of the Chinese state against unofficial bishops - such as detention, house arrest and fines - continued.
Fr. Cervellera concluded his editorial entitled “Sino-Vatican Accord Betrayed” with these bitter lines: “Then, there is another serious aspect for which the Agreement risks being betrayed.
In the past, official and unofficial bishops met together and the underground communities were offered the use of churches for celebrations.”
“With the new regulations and above all with the new measures, this hospitality becomes risky and ‘illegal’: it creates a greater division between official and underground communities, making the reconciliation, so desired by Pope Francis, even more distant.” - Irony of fate or logic ignored by Vatican policy?
Confessors of the Faith in Hong Kong Prisons
On April 16, 2021, nine Hong Kong freedom defenders were sentenced and jailed. Five of them are Catholics. Fr. Gianni Criveller of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), professor of theology, got to know them and drew up a portrait of each of them the same day, in the PIME review, Mondo eMissione, reproduced on the Settimo Cielo website.
“According to the prosecution,” said Fr. Criveller, “On Aug. 31, 2019, they allegedly organized a march of 1.7 million people, peaceful but unauthorized. At that time there was no national security law [imposed by Beijing].”
“The condemned people actually contained and moderated this major spontaneous demonstration. They did their utmost to maintain calm and order. They are not reckless activists but political leaders and protagonists in public life for decades. The youngest is 64, the oldest 82. They are respected by most of the population.”
Martin Lee, the father of Hong Kong democracy, is an 82 year old lawyer and former parliamentarian. He received a 12 month suspended sentence. “He founded the Democratic Party, which has the majority support of the population, and is one of the authors of the Basic Law, the constitutional charter of the city. For Catholics, he is a familiar figure, a believer who every morning attends Mass in the central church of St. Joseph.”
“Parliamentarian and trade unionist Lee Cheuk-yan, 64, also comes from the Catholic community. He is a very dear friend, associated to the PIME missionaries by family ties.”
“Years ago, parliamentarian Cyd Ho, 66, who has been jailed for eight months, told me during a Right of Abode demonstration in Hong Kong’s Chater Garden that a PIME missionary had baptized her when she was a young woman.”
“Gentle intellectual Margaret Ng, 73, is also a Catholic. … On April 16, 2021, before hearing the sentence that condemned her to a 12 month suspended sentence, she read a noble statement which ended with an invocation to St. Thomas More: ‘I have grown old in the service of the rule of law. I know Sir Thomas More is the patron saint of the legal profession. He was tried for treason because he would not bend the law to the king’s will.’”
“Jimmy Lai, 72, in prison for some time, received another 14 months. Founder of Apple Daily, the most popular newspaper in Hong Kong, he received baptism as an adult thanks to Cardinal Joseph Zen.”
“These are witnesses and prophets for our days and they deserve more recognition. But our time and world do not love freedom, nor those who fight for it while paying a very dear price.”
“Is the 2018 Agreement really worth this complete silence?”
On March 26, Fr. Criveller, in Mondo eMissione, wondered about the Vatican’s silence about the serious events in China and Hong Kong. “Does the 2018 Vatican-China agreement really demand complete silence, even though the deal has led to such modest results?” he asks.
“As far as I know, most Catholics in Hong Kong are deeply disappointed. As they go through the greatest difficulties - since the Japanese invasion - the Holy See remains silent. And they understand this silence even less today in front of the testimony offered by respected and popular Catholic activists now in prison (like the young Agnes Chow) or awaiting trial [like the five mentioned above].”
And to continue: “It is perhaps true, as Msgr. Paul Gallagher, Vatican secretary for relations with the states suggests, that “great demands” do not necessarily produce good results. But then why does the Vatican intervene in matters concerning the things of our world, the nations, and their rulers?”
A Damning Report
On April 20, 2021, Aid to the Church in Need (AIN) released its biannual report on religious freedom around the world. This points to notorious violations of this fundamental right in 62 countries out of the 196 studied. That is, one in three countries, against one in five in the previous edition of 2018.
Regional analysis in Southeast Asia points out that “several countries in mainland Asia continue to be ruled by one-party Marxist dictatorships. The largest of them, China, with a population of 1.4 billion, is sadly distinguished by the establishment of one of the world’s most invasive and effective tools for controlling religions by the State.”
“Combining mass surveillance, a social credit system that scrutinizes and sanctions individual behavior, and brutal crackdowns on religious and ethnic groups suspected of disloyalty, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is reaching new heights when it comes to stifling religious freedom. Moreover, as the China report reveals, the situation has become even more brutal since Xi Jinping was elected President of China in 2013.”