Vatican Not Surprised by China Veto of Visit to Hong Kong

VATICAN CITY—Reports that China has vetoed a possible visit by Pope John Paul II to Hong Kong came as no surprise to the Vatican, which has seen Beijing rebuff all of its recent efforts to improve relations.

The Vatican had no official comment Aug. 9 on the reports, said to have been confirmed by Bishop Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun of Hong Kong, that the Chinese Foreign Ministry has ruled out a stop in the former British colony when the Pope travels to Asia late this year.

Members of the Hong Kong parliament protested the veto, calling it an unwarranted interference in Hong Kong's affairs.

John Paul would have been the second pope to visit Hong Kong. Pope Paul VI made a three-hour stop there in 1970.

But Vatican sources said Chinese officials already had made clear in informal contacts that John Paul would not be welcome in Hong Kong because the Vatican maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

The situation was further complicated by China's anger over the recent statement by Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui that Taipei and Beijing should have “state-to-state relations.” China considers Taiwan a breakaway province.

The Vatican suspended formal diplomatic relations with China after the communists took control in 1949.

In order to weaken the ties of Chinese Catholics to the Vatican, the government established the Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics in 1957, forcing Catholics still loyal to the Vatican to practice their faith underground.

In an effort to improve relations, the Vatican indicated earlier this year it might be prepared to jettison its ties with Taiwan.

Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state, said in February he was prepared to move the Vatican's embassy from Taipei to Beijing immediately.

“We are aware that in order to normalize our relations with Beijing, we will have to modify relations with Taipei. We are willing to negotiate,” Cardinal Sodano added in March when Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited Italy.

But the Chinese response was chilly. Jiang did not cross the Tiber River for an audience with the Pope, and Zhu Bangzao, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, told a news conference, “Words are not enough. You have to follow through with deeds.”

John Paul is scheduled to travel to Asia before the end of the year to formally close the synod of Asian bishops that was held in the Vatican in the spring of 1998.

It was at the synod that Asian bishops raised the possibility the Pope might visit Hong Kong, which reverted to China in 1998, to celebrate Mass for the island's some 240,000 Chinese Catholics and 120,000 immigrants from the Philippines.

Vatican sources said it is likely the Pope will make the trip in November, visiting India with stops in Bombay, Calcutta and New Delhi. It also appeared the Vatican has discarded the idea of a stop in Macao because the Chinese could view a visit by the Pope one month before the Portuguese colony returns to Chinese rule as a provocation.

Macao has about 25,000 Catholics, or about 6% of its population. The Diocese of Macau, seat of the oldest bishopric in the Far East, was established in 1575.

John Paul also is eager to travel to Vietnam, but Vatican sources said a visit would be difficult for logistical reasons. The country lacks facilities for gatherings of hundreds of thousands of people.

In a separate but related development, the Vatican has confirmed it has had an “envoy” in Hong Kong since 1989 despite its lack of diplomatic ties with China, Reuters reported.

In a statement, the Vatican said Father Fernando Filoni, an official at the Vatican's embassy in the Philippines, has been charged with “monitoring the life of the Church in Hong Kong and continental China more closely.

“The cleric lives in Hong Kong. It is not a diplomatic mission, but rather of a discreet presence that respects the situation.” (From combined wire services)

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