U.S. archbishop defends visit as ‘a first step’ to religious freedom, critics see only a public relations coup for Beijing
ROME—An ancient Chinese proverb says, “Even the longest journey begins with a single step.” For Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Newark, N.J., his ground breaking trip to China covered some 20,000 miles.
His hope, he says, is that the trip will be “a first step” on the road toward religious freedom in the communist nation.
“I pray this is the start of the building of a bridge over which many people will cross and ideas are shared between ourselves and the leaders of the People's Republic of China,” Archbishop McCarrick told the Register. The prelate briefed Pope John Paul II about his three-week journey ahead of an official report set for release March 18 at a press conference in New York.
The archbishop's visit, which wrapped up earlier this month, was made together with a Baptist minister and an Orthodox Rabbi. The delegation was the highest-level group of U.S. religious leaders to ever travel through China.
It came at the invitation of Chinese President Jiang Zemin who, before his first trip to Washington last October, acknowledged that allegations about religious rights in China were a major obstacle to improving U.S.-Chinese relations.
To express these concerns more clearly to the Chinese government, President Bill Clinton sent Archbishop McCarrick, who is chairman of the International Policy Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops; Dr. Donald Argue, president of the National Association of Evangelicals; and Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation.
“We met with President Clinton for about a half hour, following a number of briefings by the State Department, and by the House and Senate,” the archbishop said. “The president spoke about his own feelings of the importance of this trip.”
Weeks later, on March 13, the Clinton administration withdrew U.S. support for a United Nations' resolution condemning China's record on human rights. The decision not to support the annual resolution, which was introduced in 1990 after the massacre of unarmed pro-democracy protesters at Beijing's Tiananmen Square, comes in the wake of what the administration says it believes are sincere efforts by China to improve its rights record. China announced in mid-March that it intended to sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a U.N. treaty meant to guarantee freedom of expression and religion, and to ensure equality before the law.
Human rights groups, however, denounced the administration's decision to drop sponsorship of the annual U.N. human rights resolution, saying it was relinquishing one of its most effective tools to pressure China into ending abuses.
Dialogue, Not Fact-Finding
The trip of the religious leaders that ended just days before the administration shifted its position was never intended to be a “fact-finding” mission but rather, was meant to promote dialogue, according to Archbishop McCarrick. By avoiding the media and controversy, the three religious leaders were given high-level access throughout their mission, which included private talks with President Jiang.
“The goal of the mission,” he said, “was to try, through substantive dialogue and conversations with the highest authorities in China, to give them some idea of the fact that religion does play a major role in the foreign policy of nations—especially of the foreign policy of the United States.”
He said the delegation tried to make that point wherever they were able to go. Besides meeting top government officials, they also met with leaders of the Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, and Taoist faiths from across the vast nation.
Drawing a contrast between the United States and China, the archbishop said that while 90% of the U.S. population has some commitment to religion, in China 90% or more of the people are atheists.
“It becomes a subject for diplomacy because it affects how Americans look at other nations,” he said. “We went to China to make the point that religion is important—and is not just an add-on. It's an essential element of a mutual relationship among nations.
“It seems the government of China suspects that when American foreign policy talks about religious liberty and religion, it's just a ploy or a gimmick,” he said.
“We spent more than an hour with President Jiang,” the archbishop said. “As I said to him, because Americans go to church, they are concerned about their brothers and sisters who share their beliefs in other parts of the world.”
The U.S. delegation held separate discussions with officials in China's Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Justice, the Religious Affairs Bureau, the Politburo, local governors and with Communist Party officials.
In total, there were nearly 50 substantive meetings in Beijing, Nanjing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Lhasa (Tibet), and Hong Kong.
The Persecuted Church
The Chinese regime sees unsupervised religious freedom as a threat to the supremacy of the Communist Party. It is especially suspicious of the Catholic Church, since it recognizes a spiritual—and political—leader outside China.
All officially recognized religions must report to a government agency whose mission it is to promote atheism. Since seizing power in 1949, the communists have insisted that Christians join the state-sponsored Catholic or Protestant Churches.
For Catholics, this means severing all ties to Rome and participating in the Patriotic Association of Catholics. Many have refused and instead worship in the “Underground Church,” risking harassment and arrest. (See interview with Cardinal Paul Shan Kuo-hsi of Taiwan, page 1)
Officially, the Chinese regime reports fewer than 15 million Christians in a total population of 1.2 billion, but estimates by missionary groups put the figure as high as 90 million, including as many as 8 million Catholics in the Underground Church.
According to Archbishop McCarrick, the biggest obstacle to growth remains the fact that Beijing requires all Churches to register with the state and be subject to a degree of state control.
“We told the Chinese authorities that Americans find hard to understand the need to register Churches,” he said.
The archbishop also said the three religious leaders had done much research preparing a list of prisoners of conscience and appealed to the Chinese authorities for an investigation.
“I presented a list of some 30 people to the head of the Religious Affairs Bureau in Beijing,” he said. “We said the continued detention of these people was a serious problem for religious believers in the United States.”
The delegation has received no response to their appeal.
The visit by the U.S. religious leaders to China was not without its critics, among them the Stamford, Conn.-based Cardinal Kung Foundation and Fides, the missionary news agency of the Vatican. Both organizations interpreted the visit as a ploy to soften criticism of Beijing for its persecution of religious believers who practice their faith outside state-sanctioned institutions.
Fides called the mission “a public relations coup” for China's communist government but a “fiasco” in terms of discovering the true level of religious freedom in the country.
Archbishop McCarrick countered that criticism, saying Fides “should have paid attention” to the reasons for the trip and the mission the U.S. delegation had outlined in advance.
“If it was a fact-finding trip, then Fides was absolutely correct,” he said, “but since it was not a fact-finding trip, Fides was absolutely incorrect. It was obvious Fides hadn't been paying attention.”
Throughout the 18-day journey, the archbishop said he did not celebrate Mass in any of the Catholic churches in China, since they are not in communion with Rome. Instead, he would offer Mass each day in his hotel room.
“I did, however, visit both [states-sponsored] Protestant and Catholic Churches to observe the ceremonies, and the deep faith of the people was evident,” he said.
The archbishop said when Chinese (Patriotic) Catholics learned he was a bishop from the Universal Church, they would greet him and ask for a blessing.
“In my mind that was so clear a sign there is a longing for the full expression of the faith in China.”
He also said he experienced a “personal joy” during the delegation's visit to the ancient city of Lhasa in Tibet, where local authorities informed him he was the first Catholic bishop to visit in nearly 700 years.
“I may have been the first Catholic bishop to enter central Tibet since the 13th century—since the Franciscan missionary John of Monte Corvino—almost in the time of Marco Polo,” Archbishop McCarrick said. “I offered Mass for Pope John Paul II in my hotel room there and prayed for the full reconciliation of all peoples in the Church of the Lord Jesus.”
A Final Evaluation
When asked if the delegation's visit to China was a success, the archbishop responded affirmatively.
“When you look at what our major purpose was—to begin these negotiations— that certainly was achieved,” he said. “To have been able to talk about religion with the president of China was a rare opportunity.”
He said all three U.S. religious leaders hoped the Chinese government might see the value of talking to religious leaders and that dialogue might continue in the future.
Despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles to religious freedom in China, Archbishop McCarrick said his prayer is that Chinese authorities will take steps, however small, toward easing restrictions on believers. He also said he hoped the U.S. delegation's visit had been “a first step” along that pathway.
Stephen Banyra writes from Rome.