BEIJING: A priest baptises a woman after a mass at the  the state-run South Cathedral on Saturday.—AFP
BEIJING: A priest baptises a woman after a mass at the the state-run South Cathedral on Saturday.—AFP

VATICAN CITY: The Vatican on Saturday announced an historic accord with China on who appoints bishops in the Communist country, paving the way for rapprochement between the Catholic Church and the world’s most populous country.

Shortly after the deal was unveiled, Pope Francis recognised seven clergy appointed by Beijing, which has not had ties with the Vatican since 1951.

There are an estimated 12 million Catholics in China, divided between a government-run association whose clergy are chosen by the Communist Party and an unofficial church which swears allegiance to the Vatican.

Pope Francis has sought to improve relations with China since he took office in 2013, but previous attempts foundered over Beijing’s insistence that the Vatican give up recognition of its rival and promise not to interfere in domestic religious issues.

Saturday’s breakthrough came as churches have been destroyed in some Chinese regions in recent months, and there has been a clampdown on Bible sales.

The agreement with China “concerns the nomination of Bishops, a question of great importance for the life of the Church”, the Vatican said in a statement as Pope Francis began a visit to the Baltic states. The deal “creates the conditions for greater collaboration at the bilateral level”, it added.

Following the announcement, the pontiff recognised seven bishops who had been ordained in China without the approval of the Holy See, his office announced.

China said the “provisional” agreement was signed in Beijing by vice foreign minister Wang Chao and a Vatican delegation headed by the under-secretary for relations with states, Antoine Camilleri. The two sides, it added, “will continue to maintain communication and push forward the improvement of bilateral relations”.

The Vatican cut ties with Beijing two years after the founding of the communist People’s Republic.

‘Strategic move’

Jonathan Sullivan, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, described the accord as “a strategic move on China’s part; and a naive one on the Vatican’s”.

Sullivan said China’s Communist party will frame the deal as the Vatican’s seal of approval to the state-run Catholic Church at a time Christian believers are facing a severe crackdown.

“Ultimately, the Party would like to subsume all forms of worship under state organs that make it easier to manage and ensure that everyone’s primary loyalty is to the state,” Sullivan said.

Published in Dawn, September 23rd, 2018