Understandably, most reaction to Pope Francis’s latest blockbuster interview, in this case with the Spanish newspaper El Pais, focused on his comments on populism, including Donald Trump.
Whenever you have the pope warning against the lure of political
“saviors” promising to solve crises with walls and wire, and even making
comparisons to Adolph Hitler, it’s obviously going to make waves and
get tongues wagging.
Yet for all those who care about the cause of religious freedom
around the world, there’s another portion of the interview that’s likely
to raise eyebrows and, perhaps, generate some consternation - what
Francis had to say about China.
In the English translation provided by El Pais, here’s what the pope is quoted as having said: “In China, churches are crowded. In China they can worship freely.”
In the original Spanish, the pope’s statement wasn’t quite that bald. What he said was, “En China las iglesias están llenas. Se puede practicar la religión en China,” which translates as, “In China the churches are full … one can practice religion in China.”
There is, of course, a big difference between saying religion can be
practiced someplace, which can imply despite difficulties and dangers,
and claiming that one can “worship freely” there.
Nevertheless, the fact that Pope Francis appeared to suggest that the
climate for religious freedom in China is basically positive likely
will irritate, even outrage, people who know the reality, and who have
been working on behalf of the country’s religious minorities.
To begin with, the first part of the pope’s statement, that churches
are full, is empirically accurate. Christianity has been growing like
gangbusters in China, to the extent that at some point in the
not-too-distant future observers expect it to be home to the single
largest Christian population anywhere in the world.
For the record, the vast majority of that expansion has come among
Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians. By way of contrast, the small
Catholic community has done little more than keep pace with overall
On what Francis said about the ability to practice one’s religion,
however, the situation is considerably more complicated than the pope’s
simple statement suggested, and it is a bit puzzling that he didn’t at
least acknowledge the challenges.
It’s especially curious because it’s not as if he doesn’t know.
November, when Francis celebrated a Mass for bishops who had died during
the past year, the Vatican booklet for the liturgy included five
bishops from mainland China who had served time in prison or labor
camps, and either died in prison or from health complications after
Information about China’s policy of tight control over religious groups is easily available.
In its most recent annual report, the United States Commission for
International Religious Freedom recommended that China be designated a
“country of particular concern,” meaning one of the world’s worst
violators when it comes to respecting the right to religious liberty.
Here’s what the 2016 report found, covering the preceding year.
“China’s severe religious freedom violations continued in 2015,” it
said. “During the past year, as in recent years, the central and/or
provincial governments continued to forcibly remove crosses and bulldoze
churches; implement a discriminatory and at times violent crackdown on
Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists and their rights; and harass,
imprison, or otherwise detain Falun Gong practitioners, human rights
defenders, and others.”
Christians are often in the front lines for those campaigns of harassment and intimidation.
Just a few days before the pope gave his El Pais interview,
Pastor Gu Yuese of Congyi Church, the country’s largest state-run
megachurch, was re-arrested for refusing to support the government’s
removal of crosses from Christian structures.
Some observers believe it
may be the most significant anti-Christian crackdown since the Cultural
Revolution, because it sends a chilling signal not only to dissident but
even those Christians trying to play by the government’s rules.
Gu had been arrested previously at the beginning of 2016 on the same
charges, when government authorities investigated him for corruption. He
was released in March on bail, and held under house arrest. Hundreds of
ordinary Christians and pastors have been arrested for the same reason.
Catholics who chafe against the government’s attempt to control the
Church often suffer the same fate. As of mid-2016, at least three
bishops and more than a dozen priests were in prison in China, and
Catholics in various parts of the country routinely complain of
surveillance, intimidation and the threat of arrest.
In late December, China’s Minister for Religious Affairs sent another
shot across the bow, saying Beijing is willing to engage in dialogue
with the Vatican but that the price of admission is that Chinese
Catholics must “hold up high the flag of patriotism” - meaning, of
course, not questioning the government’s domination of religious life.
Just the week before, the Vatican was compelled to issue a statement
saying it was “saddened” when government officials insisted that an
“illegitimate” bishop, meaning one ordained without the pope’s consent,
had to be at the ordination ceremony for two new bishops who came with
the approval of both Beijing and Rome.
Granted, China is not North Korea, where tens of thousands of
Christians languish in forced labor camps, nor is it Syria and Iraq,
essentially a free-fire zone in which Christians are routinely
slaughtered. Still, to say that conditions on the ground add up to an
ability to “practice religion” seems a serious exaggeration.
Of course, Francis may be engaged in that time-honored Vatican
strategy of playing the long game, playing down provocative rhetoric in
order to advance the relationship with Beijing, ideally affording Rome
greater leverage to achieve positive change.
Further, the pope may be
concerned that Christians on the ground in China would be the ones to
pay the price should he indulge in finger-pointing and denunciations.
Still, those Catholics in China these days behind bars, or who fear
ending up there, may be forgiven for wishing that once in a while, their
pope would speak publicly and clearly about their sacrifice.
Whenever that day may be, it certainly wasn’t the El Pais interview.