Congressional Report: Biden Administration Should Push Vatican to ‘Reevaluate’ China Deal

Although persecution of Catholics and other religious groups was high in 2019, it increased in 2020, the report noted.

Flags of China and the Vatican.
Flags of China and the Vatican. (photo: Freshstock / Shutterstock)

WASHINGTON — A new congressional report calls for U.S. diplomatic engagement with the Vatican to “reevaluate” its 2018 agreement with China on the ordination of bishops.

The annual 2020 report by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), published on Thursday afternoon, includes calls for the incoming Biden administration to work with the Vatican on persecution of Catholics in China.

In particular, the list of diplomatic priorities includes pressing the Vatican to “publish the original [2018] agreement and any negotiated revisions” in the interest of transparency and accountability for Chinese officials.

In September 2018, the Vatican and China reached a provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops, with the Holy See’s aims of unifying the communist state-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) with the underground Church that is in union with Rome, as well as providing a workable framework for the appointment of bishops. While according to the commission’s report there are an estimated 10 to 12 million Catholics in China, around 6 million Catholics are registered with the CCPA.

The “the experimental implementation phase” of the agreement was renewed in October. Critics of the deal argue that it gives the Chinese Communist Party too great a say in the episcopal candidates, and that persecution of underground Catholics has continued.

The incoming Biden administration should “work with Vatican officials” on the persecution of Catholics in China and “offer technical assistance to protect Vatican diplomatic communications from Chinese government cyberattacks,” the congressional report said.

As CNA reported in July, the Vatican computer network reportedly suffered a cyberattack from Chinese state-sponsored hackers ahead of the negotiations over renewing the provisional agreement.

The 2020 report of the CECC covers the time period of July 1, 2019 until July 1, 2020, and documents abuses of religious freedom throughout the country as well as crackdowns on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

Although persecution of Catholics and other religious groups was high in 2019, it increased in 2020, the report noted.

In 2020, the Chinese government and Communist Party took “unprecedented steps in the last year to extend their repressive policies through censorship, intimidation, and the detention of individuals and groups for exercising their fundamental human rights, especially in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and Hong Kong,” the report stated.

The worst human rights abuses occurred in the largely-Muslim region of Xinjiang, the report said, “where new evidence emerged that crimes against humanity—and possibly genocide—are occurring.”

“Up to 1.8 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Hui, and others” have been imprisoned in a system of camps where they are subject to forced labor, torture, and political indoctrination, the report said.

Additionally, “[d]isturbing new evidence” surfaced last year of mass forced sterilization and contraception of Uyghur women, as well as the separation of Uyghur and other minority children from their families—actions which the report said should be considered by international bodies when making a genocide determination for the region.

“These trends suggest that the Chinese government is intentionally working to destroy Uyghur and other minority families, culture, and religious adherence,” the report said.

Pope Francis did not speak publicly about the mass detention of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang until the publication of his book “Let us Dream,” where it was reported in November that he referred to “the poor Uighurs” as among “persecuted peoples.”

And despite the Vatican and China renewing their agreement on the ordination of bishops in October, harassment of underground lay Catholics, priests, and bishops continued in China, as the agreement was considered for renewal, the report said.

Churches continued to be destroyed or desecrated, Catholics were pressured to join the state-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), and underground clergy continued to be detained or harassed for not joining the CCPA. The auxiliary bishop of Mindong Vincent Guo Xijin was reportedly under government surveillance in April after he was pressured to join the CCPA and sign a statement of separation from the Holy See; Father Huang Jintong was also reportedly detained in Fujian in April after refusing to sign such a statement. Other priests and bishops have remained in detention for years.

Conditions for religious freedom also deteriorated to the strictest levels of repression since the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s, the report noted.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party “intensified” its recent practice of “sinicization” to forcibly control religion, the report noted, with past destruction of churches, mosques, and temples continued in 2020.

In Hong Kong, “the ‘one country, two systems’ framework has been effectively dismantled,” the report said.

CNA has reported that some Catholics took part in pro-democracy protests in 2019 and 2020, and are worried that religious freedom could suffer after the Chinese mainland legislature passed a national security law extending control over Hong Kong, regardless of any opposition by Hong Kong’s democratically-elected legislature.

The Chinese Communist Party also used the coronavirus pandemic to exert its control over society, the report noted.

During the coronavirus outbreak, Catholics in April and May were subject to official cancelation of religious events despite virus restrictions being lifted elsewhere in the area.

In another reported case, a Catholic priest in Hebei “was warned by authorities to stay silent about the outbreak.”

A view of St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City.

Scholar: Vatican Should Speak Up on China

An estimated 6 million Catholics are registered with the Chinese Communist Party, while several million are estimated to belong to unregistered Catholic communities which have remained loyal to the Holy See.