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China: A Cardinal’s Flattery Doesn’t Set Any Bishops Free

 

3/21/2005 8:46:00 AM by Sandro Magister - www.chiesa.espressonline.it

 

ROMA, March 21, 2005 - The latest Chinese Catholic bishop to leave prison is John Gao Kexian. He was arrested in 1999, at an undisclosed location. Last August, his family received his lifeless body. The following September 11, the Holy See issued a stern note of protest over his death and over the arrest of other bishops and priests. This was an unusual step for the kind of diplomacy the Vatican practices, which is very cautious toward the Chinese authorities.

 

Several bishops and priests are imprisoned in China. The agency “Asia News,” directed by Father Bernardo Cervellera, a missionary in the country for many years, recently released an updated list on March 1 of 2005.

 

There are now 6 Chinese bishops in prison. 13 others are under house arrest. 19 priests have been imprisoned or have disappeared, and three more have been condemned to the concentration camps. All of them are members of the clandestine Church, which refuses to be part of the “patriotic” Church controlled by the communist regime.

 

Father Cervellera has made public the list of the imprisoned at the same moment as the opening of the annual session of the Chinese parliament. And he has launched an international campaign for their release.

 

The campaign has been echoed by the parliament of the European Union, through the initiative of its Italian vice-president, Mario Mauro. In the United States, Bishop John H. Ricard, chairman of the episcopal conference’s Committee on International Policy, sent a letter to the Chinese ambassador to Washington on March 11, asking for an explanation for the arrests and objecting to not having received any reply to three earlier protest letters he sent in 2004.

 

The “Asia News” campaign moves in the direction opposite that of the policy of appeasing China recently promoted by many governments, especially in Europe. He is breaking the silence on the Chinese government’s systematic violations of liberty. He is denouncing the overwhelming contradiction between this silence and the desire of so many governments to resume selling weapons to China, in the interests of economics and Realpolitik.

 

 

* * *

 

During the same days, however, a cardinal of the Vatican curia released, in Rome, a book that does not harmonize at all with the “Asia News” campaign. Even more, it takes the opposite side, that of appeasement toward the Chinese government, of near silence over its system of oppression.

 

The cardinal is Roger Etchegaray, from France, president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and for many years the pope’s personal envoy to the world’s hotspots. On four occasions - in 1980, 1996, 2000, and 2003 - Etchegaray traveled to China, sometimes with the consensus of John Paul II. In the book he has just published, he gives an account of “what I have seen and heard” during his trips.

 

Evidently he saw and heard little, and that poorly. The China that he recounts - Etchegaray writes at the beginning of his book - is only the “little patch of sky” that “a frog from the bottom of a well” can see.

 

But then why did he not set this “little patch” beside the facts that his hosts carefully concealed from him, but which he could have learned from other sources, and if not at the time, then later? Why didn’t he dismantle the deception that these visits were composed of?

 

He didn’t do it. And with this Cardinal Etchegaray added his name to the disreputable list of illustrious pilgrims - from the world of politics and culture - who in past decades have visited the USSR, Cuba, China, and other such destinations, punctually making reports enthusiastic, naive, or in any case far from reality.

 

During his first visit, in 1980, Etchegaray was welcomed in Beijing by the vice-president of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries. And he immediately notes: “I want to render homage to this prestigious association that pampered me as its guest, and to its president.”

 

They assigned him an interpreter “who would be for us the most exquisite, the most understanding intermediary.” And when the cardinal raised a timid objection, this man immediately responded favorably, like a perfect secret service professional: “I thank you for your frankness; we will understand each other well.” The objection concerned a meeting with a patriotic bishop opposed to the pope, Michael Fu Tieshan. Etchegaray was uncertain about meeting him in official dress at his church in Beijing. In fact, they met that evening for dinner. Today, twenty-five years later, Fu Tieshan is still the first of the bishops subservient to the regime, but Etchegaray says nothing about this.

 

The next day, the cardinal underwent a humiliating interrogation - with questions such as “How do you exercise your autonomy as an archbishop under the imperialism of the pastor of the universal Church?” - with no objections, not even in his book. But thanks to this examination, he had the honor of being the first cardinal given a seat at the People’s National Assembly, which is “the supreme body of state authority.”

 

Etchegaray recalls enthusiastically the “magnificent dance recitals on the subject of friendship among peoples.” And he writes of the treatment he received:

 

“I report with pleasure the following anecdote that took place in the hotel we were staying in. At lunch time, the waiter said to me: ‘Your Excellency, I imagine that today you would like to observe the Friday abstinence, so we are recommending a good freshwater fish for you.’ I confess that such a pious thought was far from my mind. What a demonstration of Chinese courtesy, even toward a cardinal and under an atheistic regime!”

 

Etchegaray seems completely ignorant of the fact that episodes like this are customary in the accounts of guests of honor in communist countries.

 

And even the official meetings went according to script. The director of the Religious Affairs Office assured the cardinal that “here everyone has the right, recognized by the constitution of 1978, to believe or not believe.” And Etchegaray did not contradict him. As a summary of his first trip, he writes that “all areas, even that of religion, are being opened up, but without renouncing the founding principles of the new China.” His only disappointment is that the Chinese Church “suffers from internal division.”

 

During his second visit to China, in 1993, the cardinal was hosted by the Organizing Committee of the National Games. Even today, he feels bound to write: “I must particularly thank Sun Linghua, my adept interpreter from the foreign ministry.” He had the inevitable meeting with patriotic bishop Fu Tieshan. When it came time for him to return to Rome, he released a declaration which he reproduces in the book. In thirteen lines proclaiming friendship and reconciliation, there is not the slightest reference to the absence of liberty.

 

The third visit, in 2000, was “unfortunately” disturbed by the reaction of the Beijing authorities to the announcement that John Paul II would canonize some Chinese martyrs on October 1, the national holiday of communist China. Etchegaray underwent two consecutive “inquests” for a total of four and a half hours at the hands of two “extremely high-level” officials. And his reaction? With ashes sprinkled on his head, he writes in the book:

 

“Upon my return from Beijing, in an interview with Vatican Radio, I described as ‘highly displeasing’ the canonization’s coinciding with the national holiday of the Chinese people. This deeply wounded their sensibilities, which are so delicate after all the humiliations they have suffered from the Western powers.”

 

But the fourth visit, in 2003, took Etchegaray up and down “the vast spaces of Szechuan, where the famous pandas live under protection today.” He had been invited by one of the area’s bishops. And “what a surprise to enjoy, in the high valley of Bi Feng Xia, the brilliant fireworks set off in my honor, on the occasion of my birthday, discovered from my passport!”

 

The book concludes with a few pages considering today’s China, and a pair of supplemental documents.

 

The second of these is John Paul II’s message of October 24, 2001, in which the pope asks China’s forgiveness for all the “errors” committed by Catholics which have wounded the Chinese people. Etchegaray adds that “unfortunately, this confession was scarcely acknowledged.”

 

The first document is an officious text, also from 2001, by Chinese Marxist scholar Pan Yue, “one of the communist party’s cherished proteges.” The last section is entitled: “Constructing a rational, scientific relationship between politics and religion.” And its final thesis is that “Chinese cultural tradition obliges all religions to submit themselves to the sovereign authority, to serve authority.” All the religions: including Christianity, which “came in through the power of the cannon.”

 

Bedazzled, Etchegaray explains:

 

“Today’s China is no longer that of Mao; it is above all that of Confucius. [...] The integration of religions within the organization of the state goes back to the imperial tradition of ‘celestial bureaucracy.’ In our day, paradoxically, it is an atheistic regime that establishes for China what are the officially recognized religions. There are five of these: Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism. The representatives of these religions - bonzi, imams, priests, and pastors - participate annually in the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, and each month they meet on a local level. What other country in the world could manage such meetings, which however do not include real interreligious dialogue, oriented toward the smooth workings of religious politics regulated by official authority?”

 

Having said this, the cardinal finally introduces a few timid lines on the “problem of religious liberty,” which “remains the central preoccupation for all the religions, and for the Christian religion in particular.”

 

Will he be heard? Father Bernardo Cervellera, who has lived in China for years, wrote in a recent editorial in “Asia News”:

 

“A Chinese Catholic bishop once told me: the politicians in Beijing are arrogant. If you want respect, you must treat them like dogs to their faces, just as they are accustomed to do. If you flatter them, that means you are weak, and they despise you.”

 

Father Cervellera was publicly chastised by the Holy See’s official spokesman, and then dismissed in 2002, for forcefully denouncing the abuses of the Chinese regime while he was director of the Vatican’s missionary news agency “Fides.”

 

Will flattery like Etchegaray’s produce better results? The answer is in the list of the persecuted that “Asia News” has released.

 

 

 

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