New York Times International
The New York Times

October 26, 2001

China Repeats Terms for Ties Pope Seeks

By ERIK ECKHOLM
Reuters
Roman Catholics, loyal to the Vatican, recited the rosary on Thursday outside a church in Sheshan, about 20 miles from Shanghai.

BEIJING, Oct. 25 The Chinese government said it would "earnestly study" Pope John Paul II's plea this week for diplomatic ties but gave no indication of a breakthrough, repeating conditions that have long bedeviled relations.

"We have made it clear all along that we are willing to improve relations with the Vatican," Sun Yuxi, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said today. "But there are two principles that we will stick to." First, Mr. Sun said, the Vatican must end diplomatic ties with Taiwan and recognize Beijing as the sole government of China. Second, "the Vatican should promise that it will not interfere in China's internal affairs, including interference under the pretext of religious activities."

Vatican officials have indicated previously that in the right circumstances, they would be willing to transfer recognition from Taipei to Beijing, just as the United States and European governments have done. Today, Giulio Andreotti, a former Italian prime minister who met with the pope on Wednesday, told reporters in Rome that the Taiwan issue "is not a problem."

But China's second condition raises what many experts say is the more intractable issue: the authority of the Vatican over the appointment of bishops and other vital church activities. China does not permit any organizations that do not accept the leadership of the Communist Party. China and the Vatican broke off ties in the early 1950's, as the new Communist government expelled foreign missionaries and persecuted some church leaders seen as enemies of the revolution.

Catholics here have been tormented by a bitter split ever since, with some priests and worshipers joining the state-sanctioned "patriotic" church while others pledge allegiance to the pope in the so-called underground church. Today, some four million to five million Chinese take part in the official church while as many as eight million worship in the unapproved church, their leaders sometimes facing harassment or prison. Officials of the state-run church have been told by the state religious authorities not to speak to the media, and today they declined to comment on the pope's entreaties.

John Paul II has said more than once that he hopes to pray in China and to reunite the flock. But the outlook has not seemed bright. Angry exchanges erupted in the fall of 2000, when the Vatican made saints of 120 Catholics who were killed in China between 1648 and 1930, describing them as martyrs. Beijing officials said many of those canonized had committed criminal acts, abetting the invasions by European armies and the imposition of the opium trade on China in the 19th century. The Vatican, in turn, was angered by continued arrests of underground Catholic leaders and by the Beijing church's public show of creating bishops without consulting the Vatican.

Still, secret negotiations have continued. In one augury of a possible thaw, the Chinese allowed foreign scholars to attend a conference here this month celebrating Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit who was a valued adviser to the Chinese court in the early 17th century.

In a message on Wednesday to a related conference in Rome, the pope made an ardent plea for reconciliation. He praised the social achievements of the People's Republic and begged forgiveness for "errors and limits of the past" on the part of Catholic missionaries who, he acknowledged, had often worked in league with foreign colonial powers. In a phrase that the Chinese authorities certainly noticed, the pope also referred to Beijing as "the great capital of modern China." This appears to suggest that the Vatican's formal stance of recognizing Taipei as the government of China is not meaningful.

Diplomats say the issue of Taiwan could be finessed the same way other Western governments have done it: the Vatican could shift its embassy and official recognition to Beijing but continue operating in Taiwan. Resolving the issue of papal authority is harder to imagine, church experts say, especially with Chinese political leaders so worried about stability and preserving the supreme power of the Communist Party.

Some scholars have cited the compromise in Vietnam, another Communist country, as a model. There, the Vatican has agreed to appoint bishops in consultation with government authorities.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company