During journey of Francis in souast Asia, a country will have view very put in every gesture and every detail of Pope: China. Beijing and Holy See have no diplomatic relations. But y are exploring each or cautiously to seek a diplomatic approach that Argentine pontiff, as his predecessor Benedict XVI, considers a priority. So far, possibility of a thaw has collided with a problem so far insoluble: Vatican's firmness in which only pope has power to appoint bishops, while Beijing considers that position an interference in its sovereignty.
The pope broke in 2014 with decades of coldness sending a greeting telegram as he passed over Chinese airspace on his way to South Korea. This may, China gave to Vatican two works of painter Zhang Yang. So far, Beijing has sent mixed signals: this week, China and Vatican have agreed to exchange works of art, 40 on each side, for exhibitions in ir respective museums from next March. China has said it hopes that gesture will serve to establish mutual trust and "contribute to normalization of diplomatic relations". Although, also this week, it has been leaked to local media that Beijing has banned Chinese travel agencies from offering visits to Vatican. Although that veto already existed before, it had not been implemented until now.
The reason for that punishment, which also affects Chinese tourism of Palau archipelago, is Taiwan, which China considers to be an inalienable part of its territory. Precisely, one of reasons why Beijing acts with lead feet on approach to Vatican, and anor of great problems for normalization of ties. The Holy See is one of few countries that diplomatically recognise island as a state.
To engage in formal relations, Beijing demands that countries renounce formal diplomatic ties with Taipei. But Taiwan is an important enclave in Asia for Vatican: although only about 1.55% of its population, some 300,000 people, practices Catholicism, its presence is visible through universities such as Fu-Jen or Wenzao. Vice President Chen Chien-Jen is one of his believers.
The or big problem is what would happen to Catholic priests and parishioners within China who have faced Chinese regime for defending ir obedience to pope above state. Voices as authoritative as that of Cardinal Joseph Zen, in Hong Kong, have publicly warned against a rapprochement between Vatican and Beijing that could result in a detriment to practicing Catholics in unofficial churches, or in an abandonment of Taiwan.
The Vatican must combine se concerns with potential offered by China, most populous country in world with almost 1.4 billion inhabitants. While in Europe and or parts of world Catholicism is stagnant and vocations are slowing down, world's second economic power is experiencing an explosion of religious interest.Rise of Christianity
Christianity, arrived in China by hand of Jesuit missionaries San Francisco Javier and Matteo Ricci in 16th century, barely counted in 1949 with two million believers. Today it adds about 40 million of faithful among different confessions, according to official figures. But some experts estimate that real figure can surpass that of 88 million of militants of Communist Party of China. This country, according to estimates of Professor Yang Fenggang of Purdue University in Indiana (USA), could become for 2030 in largest Christian population of Earth, with 247 million of believers.
Although most of Christian boom in China corresponds to Protestant churches. Catholicism (toger with Protestantism, Islam, Buddhism and Taoism, one of five religions that Peking officially recognizes) is stagnant around 12 million faithful. It has been transmitted mainly through generations in rural areas. Most practice in unofficial churches, faithful to pope but often overlap. Although low birth rate, rapid urbanization and lack of evangelization have prevented this confession from enjoying explosion in conversions that have achieved or faiths.
The beginning of new mandate of Chinese president, Xi Jinping, opens a question of how contacts between Vatican and Peking evolve. But head of State has repeatedly expressed suspicions about foreign ideologies, and during his first five years of command has strongly tightened control over civil society, ethnic minorities and religions. In provinces such as Zhejiang, one of largest Christian population in China, hundreds of church crosses were withdrawn. This same month, in a town in Jiangxi, in souast, authorities recommended that Christian residents change images of Jesus Christ by posters of Xi Jinping to be included in official anti-poverty programs.
Over next few days, during papal stay in Asia, China will scrutinize carefully how much pope does. And pontiff will have in every one of his acts eye put in Peking. The task of Francis, when it comes to normalizing relations of church with Chinese regime, is arduous.