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Pope vs. China: Fear or Strategy?

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Pope Francis, recognized as one of the most influential religious leaders in the world, recently returned from a significant visit to Mongolia. But this visit was not just about Mongolia, it also revolved around a silent giant looming in the background: China. This diplomatic dance with Beijing reveals a deep-seated concern the Pope holds for the future of Catholics in the vast Asian nation.

In Mongolia, a country nestled between two superpowers, China and Russia, Pope Francis celebrated a Mass where only a handful of Chinese Catholics dared to show. Their faces were covered, fearing repercussions for attending. Observers were quick to note the absence of many mainland China bishops. Was this absence a message from the Chinese government? Some believe so.

While some critics argue that Pope Francis has often been vocal about his disagreements with Western leaders, his gentle approach toward China seems deliberate. Hoping to make significant spiritual inroads in the country, Francis is likely prioritizing the safety and growth of his flock over direct confrontation. On one hand, the 6-12 million estimated Catholics could easily become hostages, heavily persecuted to counter any pressure the Pope might exert in the name of improving the lot of other persecuted Chinese citizens. The Pope could be afraid for them

On the other hand, the gentle approach might be part of a waiting game, since organized religion in China has grown substantially, especially Christian denomination. These may eventually become a political force.

This careful approach was evident in a deal made in 2018. Aimed at improving relations and collaboration, the Pope and the Chinese government agreed to cooperate in the appointment of bishops. But the complexities of this agreement soon became apparent as China went ahead with unilateral appointments, not fully adhering to the pact.

Amid these tensions, during his visit in Mongolia, Pope Francis tried to send a positive message. Joining him on stage were two Chinese bishops, through whom he conveyed his well wishes to the people of China. He emphasized the need for Chinese Catholics to be both good Christians and good citizens. This dual identity is crucial in a nation where the Communist Party watches religious activities closely.

Interestingly, Mongolia, despite its proximity and economic ties to China, has pursued a “third neighbor” foreign policy. They seek to cultivate relationships with other nations beyond their immediate powerful neighbors. In this geopolitical dance, the Vatican is looking to play a role. As Pope Francis visited, he highlighted Mongolia’s efforts to balance relationships with its neighbors, praising its diplomatic strategies.

But the journey isn’t just about diplomacy. It’s also about reassurance. In a significant address in Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital, Pope Francis conveyed that governments, including China, should not fear the Catholic Church. He emphasized that the Church’s main mission is spiritual, not political.

Despite the cautious optimism, the fear among Chinese Catholics is palpable. At Mongolia’s grand welcome ceremony for the Pope, a few brave souls from China waved their country’s flags. Yet, whispers among them indicated they were worried about what might happen when they returned home.

China’s wariness towards the Catholic Church is well-known. This mistrust is rooted in the desire for control. Beijing wants to oversee and regulate religious institutions within its borders. And while Pope Francis has extended olive branches, hoping for a better relationship, there’s still a long way to go.

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