Wednesday, December 29, 2010

China attacks Pope's Christmas message

China has hit back at the Pope for using his Christmas message to criticise the lack of religious freedoms in the country, warning that the Vatican must "face the facts" about religion in China if it wants improve relations. 

The warning issued by the Chinese foreign ministry came after a turbulent few months for relations between Rome and Beijing which have been strained over Chinese attempts to enforce the recognition of its state-sanctioned offshoot of the Catholic Church.

"We hope the Vatican side can face the facts of China's freedom of religion and the development of Catholicism, and create favourable conditions for the improvement of China-Vatican relations through concrete actions," said a foreign ministry spokeswoman.

In his Christmas broadcast, Pope Benedict XVI, urged Chinese Catholics "not [to] lose heart through the limitations imposed on their freedom of religion and conscience" in China, but to persevere in "keeping alive the flame of hope".

The directness of the criticism annoyed China where the Catholic congregation of 8 to 12 million is split between an official state-sanctioned church and an underground church which professes loyalty to the pope first and the Chinese state second.

Although China has a measure of religious freedom, only about 23m of the estimated 100m Christians in the country subscribe to its official churches.
Over the last two years underground Christian groups have reported a hardening of attitudes from the authorities towards their activities, with major networks of house churches – Catholic and Protestant – being closed down.

Last November the Vatican was angered when Beijing forced several of the non-sanctioned bishops to attend a "Patriotic Assembly" of the state-sanctioned church to ordain a bishop.

China reacted angrily to the criticism from Rome, calling it "imprudent" and "dangerous".

This week the nationalist Global Times, a tabloid from the state-run People's Daily newspaper group which is often seen as a bellwether of Chinese government thinking, ran an editorial criticising the Vatican in blunter terms.

Under the headline "The Vatican must stop interfering with China" the paper said it was unacceptable for Chinese Catholics to put their loyalty to their temporal leader in the Vatican over that their duty to the State.

"Religious belief is a personal freedom. However, every person also has an identity bound by law, their citizenship. The Vatican's claim that religious identity goes beyond everything else is unrealistic, and even harmful for a country composed of various ethnicities and religions," the paper said.

"What the Vatican demands from China is power, it is not about the true core of Catholic belief. So far, its act is not winning much support across the world. Sooner or later, Vatican will have to adjust its China policy."