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Chinese Christians have an uneasy relationship with Beijing’s communist regime. Reports of church closures, jailed pastors and even the rewriting of scripture have been commonplace in recent years, particularly in the city of Chengdu. China has also faced extensive criticism over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, as commentators argue the regime was slow to react and reluctant to publicise the true horror of the disease to the West.
It has exacerbated tensions not seen between superpowers since the Cold War and European states appear divided on whether the US still holds the moral, military or economic advantage.
President Xi Jinping has so far responded with defiance as an emboldened Beijing reinforces its naval strength in the South China Sea, imposes new draconian laws in Hong Kong and sets its sights on Taiwan while lobbying for support with the World Health Organisation and United Nations.
On Sunday, as states across Europe began easing lockdown measures forced by the COVID-19 outbreak, Pope Francis recognised the fragility of Christians currently based in China.
Offering prayer, he said: “Dearest Catholic brothers and sisters in China, I wish to assure you that the universal Church, of which you are an integral part, shares your hopes and supports you in your trials.
“She accompanies you with prayer for a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit, so that the light and beauty of the Gospel might shine in you as the power of God for the salvation of those who believe.”
It came as Chinese Catholics celebrated the feast of Our Lady, Help of Christians and Patroness of China.
The Virgin Mary is venerated under this title at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Sheshan in Shanghai.
Francis prayed that the Chinese faithful “might be strong in faith and steadfast in fraternal union, joyful witnesses, promoters of charity and hope, and good citizens”.
It comes after years of unrest and tense relations between Beijing and the Vatican.
China’s constitution guarantees religious freedom but since Xi Jinping became president, the government has tightened restrictions on religions seen as a challenge to the authority of the Communist Party.
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The government has cracked down on underground churches, both Protestant and Catholic, and has rolled out new legislation to increase oversight of religious education and practices, with harsher punishment for practices not sanctioned by authorities.
This was recognised in 2007, when Pope Benedict wrote a “letter to Chinese Catholics” and proclaimed a day of prayer in China, which is celebrated every year on May 24.
For the occasion, Benedict prayed that Catholics around the world might support “the commitment of those in China who, among their daily labours, continue to believe, hope, and love, so that they might never fear to speak of Jesus to the world and of the world to Jesus”.
A key moment in diplomatic relations took place in 2018, with the signing of the Provisional Agreement.
Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin described the accord as “both a point of arrival on a long road and above all a starting point” for “a new phase of greater collaboration for the good of the Chinese Catholic community and for the harmony of the whole of society”.
Relations have warmed since then, too, despite the underlying unease.
The Chinese government allowed two Catholic bishops, Joseph Guo Jincai and John Baptist Yang Xiaoting, to participate in the Synod on Young People which took place in the Vatican in 2018.
Nevertheless, Francis still takes it upon himself to argue in favour of building “a common future of greater harmony” which perhaps indicates how fragile the regime’s relationship with religion continues to be.
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