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Op-Ed: Was the Dalai Lama snubbed by the Pope?

Social media was abuzz on Friday when news broke that the Vatican would not be granting the Dalai Lama a meeting with Pope Francis in Rome. The Dalai Lama is in the Italian capital for a gathering of Nobel Peace Laureates: the gathering was originally meant to take place in Cape Town in October 2014 to celebrate the first anniversary of the death of Nelson Mandela. Is Pope Francis, like the South African government, also in the pocket of the Chinese authorities? By RUSSELL POLLITT.

Many people are disappointed by the fact that two of the world’s most popular religious figures did not meet while the Dalai Lama was in Rome. One asked on Twitter, “Surely spiritual men are above this politics?” The Vatican has not had diplomatic ties with China since 1951. It is well known that its communist leaders object to meetings between heads of state and the Tibetan leader – the Vatican is a State, so we must remember that the Pope is a religious leader and a head of state. However, despite this, the Dalai Lama did meet Pope Benedict XVI briefly in October 2006, so it is not as if the Church has always decided to dance to Beijing’s tune.

The Vatican said that although Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama would not meet, the Pope holds him “in very high regard” and that the request (of the Dalai Lama to meet) had been declined for “obvious reasons”. The Pope, the Vatican said, would not be meeting with any of the Noble Laureates but would send them a video message. It seems clear that the “obvious reasons” have to do with the ongoing efforts to engage with Beijing and improve Vatican/Chinese relations.

The engagement the Vatican wants is multi-layered and complicated. The Vatican, for example, is itself in a dispute with China over who controls the Catholic Church there. The Chinese Communist Party oversees an official community, known as the “Catholic Patriotic Association”. This is believed to number about 12 million people, but there is also a much larger underground Church that is loyal to the Pope. A serious bone of contention between China and the Vatican is which side should have the final say in the appointment of bishops. There are about 100 million Catholics in China (compared to 87.6 million communist party members) and some analysts say that, by 2030, there will be more Catholics in China than in any other country, according to the BBC.

Christianity in China is not new – it can be traced back to the seventh century. However, most adherents to the religion, in one form or another, have been forced to practice their faith “underground” in illegal churches. There are many restrictions placed on the Catholic Church. For example, the Chinese government requires that all church buildings are registered with them and they refuse to recognise the authority of the Vatican. The Vatican said that the Pope’s decision was “not taken out of fear but to avoid any suffering by those who have already suffered”.

The Vatican did not officially say that it had refused a meeting to avoid offending China. It was the Dalai Lama who expressed his disappointment and said a meeting was not possible because it would create inconvenience and he did not want to do that (code perhaps for “Beijing would not like it”). Some people angrily say that the Vatican should not be bending over backwards to accommodate China or be seen to be going soft on Chinese authorities, especially because of their human rights record. The bottom line is, for many, that China should not be dictating the Pope’s calendar, as it seems to do when it comes to other governments, like South Africa, who are eager to get access to Chinese markets and capital.

South Africa has a three-level relationship with China, and cash drives all three. The ANC has access to funding from the Chinese authorities and a Chinese programme offers political education to them. The South African government benefits from a strong trade relationship with China. One of the big noises calling on the government to deny a visa to the Dalai Lama earlier this year was that of the SACP – a tripartite alliance partner with the ANC and Cosatu. They called the Dalai Lama a “Western imperialist” and said that he was “not a monk and spiritual leader only; [but] a man with a perverted political agenda.” The third level of relationship is that China is a senior partner in BRICS, to which South Africa belongs, and gives a considerable amount of money to the BRICS bank.

Unlike in South Africa, is it highly unlikely that tangled economics led to the Vatican’s decision not to organise a meeting between the Pope and Dalai Lama. There are probably a number of other considerations that would have been on the Pope and The Vatican’s mind when they considered the request. The ability to engage in a meaningful dialogue with Chinese authorities is far more likely to be the reason for the decision that was made and, linked to this, a deep concern and care for religious people in China.

Catholics on the ground in China would be the first to pay the price for what the Pope does – or doesn’t do. China only acknowledges four forms of religious expression: Taoism, Buddhism, Catholicism and Protestantism. Members are tolerated but have to practice under state-controlled bodies. For Catholics this means that the “Catholic Patriotic Association” regulates them. Those who do not submit to this are forced underground – and there are consequences for them too if they are identified. Several Catholic priests and bishops are under state surveillance, are not allowed to speak and travel freely or are in detention. Vatican analyst, John L. Allen Jnr, says that at least 20 “underground” priests have been tortured in the last two decades to make them members of the state controlled “Patriotic Association.” These include Bishop James Su Zhimin, the ordinary of Baoding, who disappeared in 1996, and Bishop Cosmas Shi Enxiang, of Yixian, who disappeared in 2001.

On the other hand, Pope Francis has conveyed interest in going to China and is probably not going to do anything that might jeopardise this fragile hope at this stage. A visit to Beijing could secure freedom for the Catholic Church, its clergy and people, but also those of other religious persuasions in China. Pope Francis has expressed a missionary zeal for China; he said this openly on his recent visit to South Korea. Time is a factor for him – he has spoken of his desire to go there “as soon as possible.” The Pope, therefore, will be cautious before doing anything that could threaten possible relations and a visit. Francis might well be working from a position called the “greater good” (a well known Jesuit criterion for deciding on a way forward). Perhaps Francis sees possible open dialogue with the Chinese and a visit as a “greater good” than meeting the Dalai Lama. He might think that his ability to talk to the Chinese could have positive spin-offs not only for Catholics but, hopefully, for people like the Dalai Lama too. Pope Francis may well be following the advice of another Francis (St. Francis de Sales 1567-1622) who, encouraging the bishop of Belley, Jean Pierre Camus, said: “Always be as gentle as you can and remember that one catches more flies with a spoonful of honey than with a hundred barrels of vinegar.”

China is, and has been, one of the Church’s greatest pastoral-political challenges since the time of Matteo Ricci. Ricci was an Italian Jesuit who founded the Jesuits’ mission to China when he arrived in Macau in 1582. No serious attempt had been made, before this, to take the Christian faith to mainland China. Ricci learnt Chinese customs, culture, and language. He was one of the first Western scholars to master Chinese script and language. Ricci was a skilled mathematician and cartographer. In 1601, he was invited as the first Westerner to become an adviser to the imperial court in Beijing. This really was in recognition of his scientific capabilities – mainly his ability to predict solar eclipses, which were important in Chinese culture, and not the faith he brought.

Ricci established the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing. But Ricci did not have it easy either in Rome (the Holy See decided against him during the so-called Chinese Rites Controversy) or in China. Ricci, however, managed to establish a Catholic Mission in the heart of the country, which laid the foundation for a better understanding between Far East and West. But, however successful Ricci’s efforts were, (and these are also debated in Church circles), the Church has never really had a good relationship with China. In 1950 the Chinese authorities clamped down on the Church and established the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

Last week’s events are not personal. A critical distinction needs to be made between making a stance and suffering for it, or making a stance and have others suffer for it. Governments do not want to deal with the Dalai Lama issue because it will hurt their business interests with China. The Vatican stance is about concern for ordinary people in China. There is a big difference in the two decisions – one is about money, the other about people.

Pope Francis would not choose to snub a fellow religious leader and human being; this would be inconsistent with everything else he has said and done in the last eighteen months. On the contrary, this might be a sign that things are slowly (and hopefully) beginning to change if better relations between the Vatican and China open the door to dialogue and a possible visit by Pope Francis. If this happens, the Dalai Lama himself could benefit and, perhaps, even the Tibetan issue moved closer to resolution after decades. DM

Photo: The hand of Pope Francis is seen as he conducts blessings during a weekly general audience in Saint Peter’s Basilica, at the Vatican April 3, 2013. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini; The Dalai Lama gestures before speaking to students during a talk at Mumbai University February 18, 2011. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

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