Negotiations have reached “the final stages,” Bishop Guo Jincai, secretary-general of the Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church in China, was quoted as saying by the state-owned Global Times newspaper on Thursday.
“If everything goes right, the deal could be signed as early as the end of this month,” said Guo, who is recognised by China’s Communist government.
The Vatican relaunched long-stalled negotiations with Beijing three years ago.
The two sides now seem close to resolving a major obstacle to progress, the question of who gets to designate bishops: China or the Holy See?
Under the deal, the Vatican could agree to recognise seven bishops who were chosen by the Communist government, in the hope that Beijing will accept the pope’s authority as head of the Catholic Church in China, a source close to the matter told AFP last month.
Beijing and the Vatican severed diplomatic relations in 1951 and although ties have improved as China’s Catholic population grows, they have remained at odds over the appointment of bishops.
China’s roughly 12 million Catholics are divided between a government-run association, whose clergy are chosen by the atheist Communist Party, and an unofficial underground church loyal to the Vatican.
While some believe an agreement will bridge divisions between the two, others fear concessions to China may backfire on the “underground” devout, many of whom suffered years of persecution for following the pope.
The Vatican has previously accepted several bishops appointed by Beijing, officially an atheist regime.
– ‘Shocking if true’ –
Some opponents — among them the respected Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen — say the agreement risks abandoning loyal believers and amounts to a deal with the devil.
A lay Catholic in central China told AFP that the deal would “certainly” lead to “less freedom for the underground Church”.
“If the Vatican violates its conscience, the underground believers in mainland China will certainly not accept it,” she said.
Last month, an open letter by lay Catholics mostly based in Hong Kong expressed concern that the recognition of Beijing-appointed bishops would lead to “confusion and pain, and schism would be created”.
Eric Lai, one of the letter’s initiators, said it would be “shocking” if it was true that the deal would go though this weekend.
“This weekend the Church celebrates the Easter Vigil. It would be ironic to see a deal unfavourable to Chinese Catholics exercising true faith made at this time,” he told AFP.
“Up to now I see no willingness of Chinese government to compromise on its tight control over religion,” Lai added.
– Bishop disappearance –
On Tuesday night, Chinese police released an underground bishop at the heart of the Beijing-Vatican negotiations after holding him for a day, sources told AFP on Wednesday.
Vincent Guo Xijin, bishop of the diocese of Mindong in the southeastern province of Fujian, is recognised by the Vatican but not by the Chinese authorities.
He was recently urged by the Vatican to step aside for state-appointed Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu and to accept being demoted to auxiliary bishop, as part of preparations for the agreement.
According to Catholics consulted by AsiaNews, which is run by the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, Guo’s disappearance can be explained by his refusal to celebrate Easter with the prelate who will replace him.
Asked about Guo’s arrest, foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Wednesday he was not aware of the situation.
But, he added, the “Chinese government fully respects and protects, according to the law, the rights of religious belief and freedom of its citizens”.
According to information from the French daily La Croix published Monday, a Chinese delegation is expected in Rome this week.
Lu on Thursday said he had no information but China “hopes that the dialogue between the two parties can continue to proceed well and achieve positive results”.