China, the Vatican and a controversial deal

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Pope Francis says he would like to visit China

China and the Vatican are close to reaching a historic deal regarding the appointment of bishops, according to media reports.

An agreement could be signed in a few months, said a senior Vatican source. If reached, it would be a breakthrough in relations for both parties.

But what exactly is in the pipeline and what would it mean for the country's 10 million Catholics?

What are relations between China and the Vatican like?

Ties between two have long been strained by disputes over who can appoint bishops in the country.

China first broke off diplomatic ties with the Holy See in 1951, and many Catholics were forced to go underground during former communist leader Mao Zedong's rule, emerging only in the 1980s when religious practices were tolerated again.

Today, Catholics in China face the choice of attending state-sanctioned churches approved by Beijing or worshipping in underground congregations.

The underground churches recognise only the Vatican's authority, whereas the Chinese state churches refuse to accept the authority of the Pope.

There are currently about 100 Catholic bishops in China, with some approved by Beijing, some approved by the Vatican and, informally, many now approved by both.

Image caption,
People praying at an underground church

Relations between both parties appear to be thawing.

Last year, Pope Francis made his thoughts about China known, saying that he would like to visit China "as soon as they send me an invitation". The pontiff also added that he hoped there was the "possibility to have good relations with China".

Chinese and Vatican officials have met at least four times since 2016 over the issue of the appointment of bishops, state media report.

What is in the agreement?

Under the agreement, the Vatican would be given a say in the appointment of future bishops in China, a Vatican source told news agency Reuters.

For Beijing, an agreement with the Vatican could allow them more control over the country's underground churches.

Media caption,
Father Dong Guanhua has been kicked out of the Chinese Catholic church for calling himself a bishop

Globally, it would also enhance China's prestige - to have the world's rising superpower engaging with one of the world's major religions.

Symbolically, it would the first sign of rapprochement between China and the Catholic church in more than half a century.

The Vatican is the only European state that maintains formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. It is currently unclear if an agreement between China and the Vatican would affect this in any way.

What will this mean for the country's Catholics?

There are currently around 10 million Roman Catholics in China.

It's not certain how such an agreement will affect the community, though some are sceptical.

Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong had on Wednesday criticised the Vatican for its attempts at diplomacy with China, accusing the Church of forcing bishops to retire in favour of replacements picked by Beijing.

Others however, are slightly more hopeful.

Father Jeroom Heyndrickx, a Belgian priest who has spent 60 years trying to help Chinese Catholics, said that he believed China was "ready to have a dialogue."

"For 2,000 years in China, the emperor was emperor and pope at the same time," he told the BBC. "But China has changed and the Church has changed and this is what constitutes a new opportunity for this dialogue to succeed."

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