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Vatican’s Silence On China Is Disconcerting – OpEd

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By Benedict Rogers*

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(UCA News) — Last Saturday, as a new consistory began in Rome, Pope Francis created 20 new Cardinals.  Six came from Asia — Singapore, Mongolia, Timor-Leste (East Timor), South Korea, and two from India.

New cardinals came from five continents, ensuring that the universality of the Church is really, truly, global. And three new religious members were appointed, from the Congregation of Jesus and Mary (Eudists), the Consolata Missions Institute and the Legionaries of Christ.

Among religious orders represented in the College of Cardinals, the largest are the Salesians, who now number ten.

This is all very good news and I applaud the Holy Father for these appointments. I began my human rights work in Timor-Leste, during Indonesia’s brutal and bloody occupation, and worked there throughout and beyond its transition to independence.

I have had the privilege of meeting the current Bishop of Dili, Virgilio do Carma da Silva, and am so pleased he has been made his country’s first cardinal. It is a signal of solidarity and respect for that beautiful, benighted and often forgotten half-island that fought for freedom and human dignity for a quarter of a century with immense sacrifice and has risen from the ashes over the past two decades in an inspiring way.

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As someone who has lived, traveled in and loves Asia, I am delighted that Singapore and Mongolia now have cardinals. And as someone who was inspired and received into the Church by Myanmar’s Cardinal Charles Bo, a Salesian, I am delighted to see the presence of Salesians, including the new East Timorese Cardinal.

My spirituality has had many influences, particularly drawing from Jesuit, Dominican and Benedictine traditions, but several of the heroes of my faith happen to be Salesians.

And yet in the consistory, out of 226 cardinals, there is one cardinal — and one Salesian — conspicuous by his absence, and that is Hong Kong’s 90-year-old Bishop Emeritus, Cardinal Joseph Zen. On May 11 this year, he was arrested by the Hong Kong police for the crime of being a trustee of a charity providing legal aid to protesters facing prosecution. Next month, he will go on trial.

When Cardinal Zen was arrested, the police took his passport. In itself that is not uncommon for those arrested in Hong Kong. But one has to wonder whether the Vatican did not regard that as rather convenient. Did the Vatican invite Cardinal Zen to the consistory? Did the Holy See make any efforts to appeal to the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities to return Cardinal Zen’s passport and allow him to travel to Rome? Were any diplomatic efforts of any kind made by Rome to at least signal that His Eminence would be welcome if he could travel? These are questions the whole world should be asking — not of Beijing, but of the Vatican.

If the answer to these questions is “no” and “none,” then my heart breaks for the future of the Church. Especially when it comes at a time when, just two weeks ago, China held its own rival gathering of clergy, when 345 bishops, priests and religious met for the 10th National Congress of Catholicism in Wuhan, in the presence of senior Chinese Communist Party officials, to elect the new leaders of the Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA) and the Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church in China.

Strikingly, among a conference of supposedly Catholic bishops and clergy, among this gathering there was much talk about Xi Jinping Thought, advancing the goals of the Chinese Communist Party, patriotism (which in this context means loyalty to the Party more than the country), and little if any mention of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, Our Lady, the Holy Bible or Catholicism. The focus was on the regime’s campaign of “Sinicization” of the Church — which, rather than the “inculturation” familiar to Catholic theology, essentially means the wholesale coercion, indoctrination and takeover of the Church by the regime in Beijing.

What worries me is that Xi Jinping’s campaign of “Sinicization” does not stop with the state-approved Church in China. It has penetrated the highest echelons of the Vatican itself.

Why else would a pope who admirably speaks out on many issues of injustice around the world, including the genocide of the predominantly Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar, be so persistently and consistently silent about one of the worst mass atrocities of contemporary times, the genocide of the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs?

Why else would a pontiff who speaks out for persecuted Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere, and rightly so, be so silent about the persecution of Christians in China?

Why else would a pope who has regularly defended the Yazidis fail to call out the crime against humanity of forced organ harvesting perpetrated against Falun Gong practitioners?

Why else would a pope who has often led inter-faith dialogue refuse to meet the Dalai Lama?

Why else would this pope ignore the dismantling of freedoms in Hong Kong and the threats to Taiwan’s very existence?

Why would a pope who wants to convey compassion and mercy refuse to meet one of his most senior and elderly cardinals, as he did when Cardinal Zen traveled to Rome in vain in 2020, despite knowing it was likely to be Zen’s last visit?

And why has the Vatican’s response to Cardinal Zen’s arrest and forthcoming trial been so tepid, merely noting the news “with concern?”

Cardinal Zen, despite his arrest, should have been invited by the pope to the consistory, and the Vatican should have appealed to the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities to release Zen’s passport so he could travel. Failure to do either is a stain on the moral authority of the Holy See.

Over the past few days, I have been in Rome. I did not go for the consistory, but I happened to be there at the same time. For the first time in the nine years since I became a Catholic, I felt very profoundly mixed feelings — and a very heavy heart.

On all my previous visits I felt only the joy of being in the Eternal City. On several previous occasions I have had the privilege of joining private, and public, audiences with the Holy Father.

In 2015, just two years after he received me into the Catholic Church in St Mary’s Cathedral, Yangon, I had the honor of being in St Peter’s in Rome to see my friend Cardinal Bo receive the red biretta, as Myanmar’s first ever Cardinal.

This time it felt different. I love Rome, I love the Church and I love the Holy Father. Indeed, I was received into the Church in Myanmar only 10 days after Pope Francis was elected. I have grown up as a Catholic under Pope Francis, and his message of mercy, grace, peace and love is much-needed in our world today. I am also saddened to see his health deteriorate, and the pain he is clearly in when he walks.

But there was a pain in my heart and soul too — a spiritual pain, afflicting the conscience.

I was attending a conference, and with that conference, I could have once again attended a private audience with the Holy Father, as I have been privileged to have done on several previous occasions. Ordinarily, I would have loved to and would have made it a priority to do so, especially after the past two years of absence due to the Covid-19 pandemic. With the world facing so many enormous challenges at this time, I would have been eager to see the Holy Father in person once again, for a moment of encouragement and instruction. But this time, I had to wrestle with my conscience. I love Pope Francis. On most issues his message is beautiful. But I have a very deep, profound problem with the position the Vatican has taken under his papacy on China. And so I thought it better not to go.

I could not in all consciousness make platitudes to a pontiff whom I love and yet whose silence on the genocide of the Uyghurs grieves me. I could not in good conscience shake hands and make small talk with a pope who refused to meet one of my heroes, Cardinal Zen, and won’t speak out for him. I could not with integrity smile and not ask him why he never speaks out for persecuted Christians in China. And I could not, without hypocrisy, present myself to him at a time when he is poised to renew a deal with a regime that stands accused of crimes against humanity for forced organ harvesting, a regime that threatens democratic Taiwan, and a regime that has destroyed Hong Kong’s freedoms and torn up its international treaty promises.

Yet at the same time, the audience was not in any way an appropriate place to make my conscience known. I could not have raised any of these issues, without souring the occasion, embarrassing my hosts, or making for an awkward, perhaps angry, photograph with the Holy Father, none of which I would want to do. So on this occasion, it was best to stay away.

But on the Vatican’s deal with China, I cannot and will not be silent. It is truly an appalling betrayal of the faithful in China and of all that drew me into the Church in the first place.

I joined the Church because I read the Catechism from start to finish. I cannot find where in the Catechism it calls us to sell out our values and stay silent about the truth.

I joined the Church because I read the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church from start to finish, and many papal encyclicals. I cannot find where the Catholic Social Teaching tells us to be silent in the face of genocide, crimes against humanity, religious persecution, unjust imprisonment, forced organ harvesting, forced abortion, human trafficking, torture and other injustices.

I joined the Church because I was inspired by its many examples — throughout history — of courage in defense of freedom, justice, human dignity and truth, epitomized by Cardinal Zen. I cannot fathom the Vatican’s apparent rejection of him.

I will never leave the Church I joined nine years ago because I believe at its heart it contains a truth that outshines the world’s lies. I just wish its leaders would rediscover that truth and stop kowtowing to Beijing’s lies. In the Eternal City, let’s see a revival of eternal courage to defend an eternal truth that beats anything Xi Jinping and his sordid regime has to offer. Let us have the courage of our convictions, stand up, stand tall and hold that eternal flame boldly and brightly in the face of bullies.

Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is a Senior Analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organization CSW, the co-founder and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch, co-founder and Deputy Chair of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and a board member of the Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign. He is the author of six books, including three books about Myanmar, especially his latest, “Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads”. His faith journey is told in his book “From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church” (Gracewing, 2015). His new book, “The China Nexus: Thirty Years In and Around the Chinese Communist Party’s Tyranny”, will be published in October 2022 by Optimum Publishing International. 

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

UCA News

The Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News, UCAN) is the leading independent Catholic news source in Asia. A network of journalists and editors that spans East, South and Southeast Asia, UCA News has for four decades aimed to provide the most accurate and up-to-date news, feature, commentary and analysis, and multimedia content on social, political and religious developments that relate or are of interest to the Catholic Church in Asia.

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