'Foreign forces' will not be allowed to control China's religious affairs, says official

A Chinese Catholic prays on Easter Sunday at the state-sanctioned Saint Ignatius Cathedral in Shanghai March 27, 2005. | REUTERS/Claro Cortes IV/File Photo

A Chinese government official has insisted that "foreign forces" will not be allowed to take control of the country's religious affairs, including the bishop selection process in the country's official Catholic Church.

During a State Council briefing on April 3, Chen Zongrong, who oversees China's religious affairs, contended that the government's refusal to hand over the control of the appointment of bishops to the Vatican does not violate religious freedom.

"The Chinese constitution clearly states that China's religious groups and religious affairs cannot be controlled by foreign forces, and (the foreign forces) should not interfere in Chinese religious affairs in any way," the official said, according to the Associated Press (AP).

"I disagree with the view that preventing Rome from having full control over the selection of bishops hinders religious freedom," he continued.

The official insisted that religious groups in China should "adapt to socialist society" and "develop religions in the Chinese context."

Chen, who previously served as the deputy director for the State Administration for Religious Affairs, was at the conference to present a white paper on "Chinese policy regarding the practice and safeguarding of religious freedom."

"Actively guiding religions in adapting to the socialist society means guiding religious believers to...be subordinate to and serve the overall interests of the nation and the Chinese people," the white paper stated, as reported by AP.

Last month, the State Administration for Religious Affairs was merged with the Communist Party's United Front Work Department, which is now responsible for overseeing matters related to religion.

The Vatican and Beijing are expected to come to an agreement over the bishop selection process for officially recognized Catholic churches.

The state-approved Catholic churches are part of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which is closely monitored by the Chinese Communist Party, but falls outside the control of the Vatican.

Underground Catholic churches, on the other hand, affirms the pope's authority, but many of its priests and parishioners suffer persecution and harassment from the government.

Some have feared that the negotiations may lead to the Vatican's recognition of seven government-backed bishops that were not appointed by the pope. The agreement would also require two underground bishops to step down.

During the briefing on Tuesday, Chen denied that Chinese authorities had briefly detained one of the underground bishops that would be required to step down.

Bishop Vincent Guo Xijin was reportedly detained for 24 hours on Monday last week and was forced to travel to Xiamen three days later. He was only released after he begged officials to allow him to return to his parish on Saturday "in time to preside over Easter activities," a source familiar with the incident told Agence France-Presse.

Chen claimed that Guo had accepted an invitation to visit Xiamen to visit a government-backed bishop. "Saying that his freedom is limited is not consistent with the facts," he said at the briefing.

Priests and nuns in Guo's parish noted that bishops are often forced to take "vacation" during sensitive periods, adding that the bishop was likely ordered to travel to Xiamen to silence him about the ongoing negotiations with the Vatican.