China’s decades-long campaign against religious freedom has made it the largest of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a Christian, and the Catholic Church is enabling the enemy.
Despite criticism by the United States State Department and human rights agencies, the Vatican is renewing a two-year-old deal with the Chinese Communist Party that offers the Chinese government a prominent role in appointing Catholic bishops in the country. Though the full details of this deal have not been fully disclosed, some have heralded the Pope-backed agreement as a win for Church diplomacy. The Holy See hasn’t had diplomatic relations with China since 1951, after all, and this deal admittedly keeps the line of communication open.
But the downsides to this relationship far outweigh the upsides. Almost any diplomatic agreement can be reached at the cost of one’s convictions.
China is one of the worst violators of religious freedom
I’ve had a front row seat to religious persecution in China over the last 7 years as the head of Open Doors USA, a nonprofit that works to empower persecuted Christians in more than 60 countries. The Chinese government is one of the world’s most notorious violators of religious freedom, and the situation has worsened since the Vatican first signed this agreement. The Church is tasked with caring for and protecting its 1.2 billion global members, but in China, it has betrayed the faithful.
The Chinese Communist Party has never taken kindly to religious minorities, which they consider to be potential threats to social order. Attending an unauthorized Christian church in China is illegal, and breaking this law carries stiff penalties including imprisonment. Churches are regularly raided by government officials, which forces the nearly 100 million Chinese Christians to choose between practicing their faith in secret or risking their lives and livelihoods to worship in public.
When the Vatican entered into negotiations with the Chinese government in 2018, many of us held hope that it could lead to real improvements for Christians there. But even the Vatican admits the results of their agreement “have not been particularly striking,” which seems to be a gross understatement considering the Chinese government’s pattern of behavior these last two years.
Since 2018, the government has imprisoned uncompliant priests and removed crosses from churches. Recently, the Chinese authorities egregiously edited the Bible to “reflect socialist values,” leaving a new generation of believers exposed to a version of the sacred text that has been filtered through an authoritarian lens. An educational curriculum written and distributed by government agencies even recast the Gospel of John to say that Christ claimed to be a sinner and was guilty of murder.
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The Chinese authorities see technology as the next frontier of totalitarianism. They are investing billions to develop and deploy new machinery such as facial recognition, data collection, and tracking software to establish a full-blown surveillance state. In fact, just before re-negotiations with the Holy See began this year, hackers working for the Chinese government infiltrated the Vatican’s computer networks in what the New York Times called “an apparent espionage effort.”
The Vatican is getting played by the Chinese government
Make no mistake: this regime seeks not to cooperate with people with faith, but to control them. Rather than wise up to China’s scheme, the Vatican is allowing itself to get played.
I visited China less than a year ago and was able to witness firsthand the Communist party’s brutal campaign against religious minorities with my own eyes. The monitoring, discrimination, persecution, imprisonment and violence of religious minorities throughout the country is reaching a precipice, and China is using the Vatican agreement to further suppress religious freedom.
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It’s important to note that Christians are not the only religious minority being targeted there. An estimated 1 million Uighur Muslims are held in re-education camps in Xinjiang province, for example, and the government has edited the Quran similarly to the Bible. But the Vatican is unique in that it has been offered a seat at the negotiation table. So, the way the Church interacts with this sinister regime is paramount, given that it will impact all persecuted minorities in the region.
Personally, I respect and admire Pope Francis for his compassionate leadership of the Catholic Church. I understand the desire to dialogue with the Chinese government, but I believe the willingness of the Vatican to submit to the terms of an insidious state is more than misguided. It endangers and betrays the millions of Chinese faithful who need the Church to take a stand on their behalf.
David Curry is CEO of Open Doors USA.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: China and Christianity: Vatican deal with China allows for persecution