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Pope Francis speaking on the Papal plane on the way to Mongolia, August 31, 2023.Vatican News

ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE (LifeSiteNews) – Speaking about the Vatican’s dealings with Communist China, Pope Francis described the relationship as “very respectful,” despite Beijing authorities forbidding Chinese Catholics to travel to neighboring Mongolia to see the Pope. 

“The relationship with China is very respectful, very respectful,” said Francis, during his now traditional in-flight press conference, held on the return journey from his recent trip to Mongolia.

“I personally have great admiration for the Chinese people,” he said. “The channels are very open – for the appointment of bishops there is a commission that has been working with the Chinese government and the Vatican for a long time. Then there are many, or rather there are some, Catholic priests or Catholic intellectuals who are often invited to Chinese universities to offer courses.”

The 86-year-old Pontiff opined further, saying “we need to move forward in the religious aspect to understand each other better and so that Chinese citizens do not think that the Church does not accept their culture and values, and that the Church is dependent on another, foreign power.”

He also praised the work done by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin for building a “friendly path,” and that “even on the Chinese side, relations are moving forward. I have great respect for the Chinese people.”

Pope writes to President Xi

The Pope’s comments come in light of being granted the rare permission of flying over Chinese airspace, twice: on the way to and from Mongolia. On both occasions, Pope Francis sent carefully worded messages to the Chinese President Xi Jinping, in the traditional telegram greetings sent by the Pope to heads of states over which he is flying. They were full of the themes of “unity” and “peace,” thus avoiding any mention of Catholicism and focusing on the values of “unity” so keenly promoted by the Chinese authorities.

Flying to Mongolia, Francis wrote to Xi: “Assuring you of my prayers for the wellbeing of the nation, I invoke upon all of you the divine blessings of unity and peace.”

On his return, the Pontiff sent a message saying: “I willingly renew my prayerful good wishes to your excellency and the people of China, and I invoke upon you all an abundance of divine blessings.”

READ: Cdl Burke: Chinese Communists have ‘rebelled against God,’ ‘cruelly persecuted’ Catholics

Additionally, at the end of Sunday Mass in Ulaanbaatar, Pope Francis issued a message to Chinese Catholics, doing so while being flanked by Cardinal John Tong Hon, a former bishop of Hong Kong and the current incumbent Cardinal-designate Stephen Chow SJ.

Taking both prelates by the hand, Francis stated, “I would like to take advantage of their presence to send a warm greeting to the noble people of China. To all the people I wish the best.”

Once more employing thematic language so key to the Chinese authorities, that of being good citizens, Francis added: “Strive ahead, always advancing. And I ask Chinese Catholics to be good Christians and good citizens.”  

Pope Francis with Cdl. John (L) and Bp. Chow (R)

Cardinal John’s predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Zen, has repeatedly criticized the Vatican’s notorious 2018 deal with Beijing. He described the agreement as an “incredible betrayal” of China’s Catholics, and accused the Vatican of “selling out” Chinese Catholics. 

But both John and Cardinal-designate Chow have been more conciliatory and supportive of the agreement. Cardinal John, writing in 2016, announced news of an upcoming deal between the Vatican and Beijing, downplaying any fears that it might backfire on the underground Church. He argued that many underground Catholics even supported the deal, and that the Sino-Vatican dialogue “aims to change the clandestine Churches’ abnormal condition for survival, so that they may soon practice their religious faith under the protection of the law.”

Notwithstanding John’s strong defense of the deal, only hours after it was first signed in 2018 AsiaNews wrote that “[u]nderground Catholics bitterly suspect that the Vatican has abandoned them.”

Beijing holding the strings of power

Yet despite Pope Francis’ in-flight attestation of the Sino-Vatican relationship being “very respectful,” reality does not support such a claim. Indeed, as America first reported, Catholic bishops and laity were expressly forbidden from traveling to Mongolia to meet the Pope. The order reportedly came from the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

LifeSiteNews contacted the international press office of the CCP, inquiring about the report, but did not receive an answer after over three days. 

Despite this, several Chinese Catholics did in fact attend Papal events, wearing face masks, sunglasses and hats in order to conceal their identity. Some waved Chinese flags, while others turned away when TV cameras or photographers came near. “We have come to show our love for the pope,” they told reporters.

Speaking on September 1, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin stated about the Pope’s in-flight telegrams to President Xi that “the greetings from the Vatican embody friendship and goodwill.” 

“China and the Vatican have maintained communication in recent years,” said Wang. “China would like to continue the constructive dialogue with the Vatican, enhance understanding, build up mutual trust and advance the process of improving the relations between the two sides.”

When further asked about the possibility of improving relations with the Vatican, another spokeswoman Mao Ning stated September 4 that China’s position had already been made clear. “China is positive towards improving the relations and we are in contact and communication with the Vatican,” she repeated.

READ: Pope Francis bows to Communist China and confirms bishop appointed by Beijing

But in the murky waters of the Sino-Vatican relationship and the still secretive deal, it is very clearly Beijing who really holds control. The CCP authorities have now blindsided the Vatican twice when installing and moving bishops, with the Vatican left playing catch up on the events. 

This led Cardinal Raymond Burke to recently comment on “the utter disdain of the communist government of China for the Catholic Church in its unilateral appointment of the Bishop of Shanghai, the see once under the care of the saintly Bishop Cardinal Ignatius Kung, without any respect for the office of the Successor of Saint Peter.”

READ: Chinese Communist Party humiliates Pope Francis with Shanghai bishop appointment

Pope Francis defended the agreement in fall of 2018 as forming a “new chapter of the Catholic Church in China,” but the deal has in fact led to a heightened increase in religious persecution, which the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China described as a direct consequence of the deal.

China expert Steven Mosher described the deal as an action which was “perhaps the most controversial of a papacy dogged by controversy.” Writing more recently in July, Mosher opined that after nearly five years of the deal being in force, “the Sino-Vatican Agreement is being used by the CCP to accomplish the slow decapitation of the Catholic Church in China.”