Christians in China gave mixed reactions to an agreement reached over the weekend between the ruling Chinese Communist Party and the Vatican over the appointment of bishops, amid warnings that religious repression would likely intensify on unofficial churches.
The controversial deal eliminates the division between bishops and churches recognized by the government-backed Catholic Patriotic Association and those appointed by Rome, which will likely result in an expansion of the Catholic Church in China.
But rights groups and leading Catholics have warned that religious persecution continues unabated under the administration of President Xi Jinping amid heavy-handed controls by religious affairs officials.
Under the agreement, Rome will now recognize seven bishops appointed by the Chinese state, and the agreement sees the founding of a new Catholic diocese in Chengde, in the northern province of Hebei.
Guo Jincai, government-appointed bishop of Chengde, is now official recognized by the Holy See, along with the bishop of Shantou, Huang Bingzhang, the bishop of Jidong, Zhan Silu, and Le Shiyin, the bishop of Leshan.
Bishop Liu Xinhong of Anhui, Ma Yinglin of Kunming, and Yue Fusheng of Heilongjiang are now also recognized by the Vatican.
A member of an unofficial Catholic church who asked to remain anonymous told RFA that the deal would certainly alleviate tensions over Beijing's appointment of unapproved bishops.
But he also sees it as the beginning of the end for the underground Catholic church in China.
"Gradually, all of the dioceses will come under the effective control of red bishops," the church member said.
Keeps ties with Taiwan
Under the terms of the interim agreement, the Vatican may express opinions on the appointment of Chinese bishops, but the agreement reiterates that the Holy See will retain its diplomatic relationship with the democratic Republic of China government on Taiwan.
The Vatican broke off diplomatic relations with China in 1951, and Sino-Vatican relations have improved in recent years. However, the two sides have been plagued by disagreements over the appointment of bishops.
The representatives of the two countries have held many consultations this year and even reached an agreement.
Han Yingjin, bishop of Sanyuan in the northern province of Shaanxi, said the deal could improve morale among Chinese Catholics, and is "of great significance."
But he added: "We shouldn't idealize it, because that would be unrealistic. Rather, this is a solution that everyone feels is acceptable ... and which is a workable solution to practical problems."
Han said he believes that the day will come when Beijing establishes formal diplomatic ties with the Vatican.
"I think it will be a bit easier for China-Vatican ties to happen now, because China always saw this as a matter of sovereignty," he said. "But the Vatican's appointment of bishops can't be contested, and that's not up for negotiation."
"For them to have reached agreement on this makes the other issues look easier to manage," Han said.
Doubts about the deal
But Jin Mingri, pastor of Beijing's Zion Church, which was recently shut down in a police raid, said he has reservations about the deal.
"I am a bit cautious about this, especially now that the Chinese government is really promoting ideology and suppressing religious practices," Jin told RFA. "But I will reserve judgement about whether it is appropriate."
He said all religious believers in China are under pressure, as the ruling party seeks to stamp its supreme authority on all areas of life.
"Everyone is under pressure right now," he said. "The Chinese government has never recognized the underground Catholic church."
But a Beijing-based Catholic surnamed Li said she was very happy with the agreement.
"Everyone’s long-cherished wish is the normalization of Sino-Vatican ties," Li said. "Then we can allow more people to join the church, and get on with their lives."
Taiwan's foreign ministry said the deal wouldn't affect diplomatic ties with the Vatican, which is Taiwan's last-remaining diplomatic partner in Europe, the island's Central News Agency reported.
Taiwan will continue to strengthen its relationship with the Vatican in fields like humanitarian relief, environmental protection, inter-religious dialogue, and education, including sending a delegation to Rome next month for the canonization of Pope Paul VI, the ministry said.
Subordinate to the Party
Beijing asserts that all religions are subordinate to the Chinese Communist Party within China's borders, and that religious believers must "be subordinate to and serve the overall interests of the nation and the Chinese people ... and support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party."
Officially an atheist country, China has an army of officials whose job is to watch over faith-based activities, which have spread rapidly in recent decades.
Party officials are put in charge of Catholics, Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, and Protestants. Judaism isn't recognized, and worship in non-recognized temples, churches, or mosques is against the law.
Earlier this year, a group of leading Catholics in Hong Kong and the U.S. strongly criticized the rapprochement between Beijing and the Holy See, citing church articles as saying that the right to nominate and appoint bishops belongs only to the Church, and not to any secular body.
Reported by Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.