China bars Chinese bishops from traveling to see pope in Mongolia

The decision by Beijing is the latest sign of tension in the already strained relations between China and the Holy See.

A Mongolian man walks past a banner promoting the visit of Pope Francis near a church in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia on Monday, Aug. 28, 2023. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia (RNS) — Chinese authorities have prohibited Catholic bishops in China from traveling to Mongolia to meet with Pope Francis during his papal visit to the tiny Catholic community in this country on China’s northern border.

The decision by the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party, first reported by America, the Jesuit magazine, is the latest sign of tension in the already strained relations between China and the Holy See.

Flying to Mongolia Thursday (Aug. 31) for his four-day visit, Francis issued a telegram while in Chinese airspace to the country’s president, Xi Jinping: “Assuring you of my prayers for the wellbeing of the nation, I invoke upon all of you the divine blessings of unity and peace,” the pope wrote.

In October, the Holy See and China renewed a 2018 provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops, which has been criticized for its secrecy and its apparent lack of any method to hold China accountable. In November, the Vatican accused China of breaking the terms of the agreement by naming a bishop to a diocese the church doesn’t recognize; in April Beijing appointed a new bishop to the influential diocese of Shanghai without the Vatican’s approval.

Critics of the deal, including the former bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, believe that the agreement is weakening the pope’s international standing by forcing the church to accede to Beijing’s demands without receiving much in return.

The pope landed in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, on Friday and will spend the weekend meeting with government representatives and leaders of several faiths, in addition to local Catholics. On Sunday, he will say Mass for 2,500 Catholics from Mongolia and nearby countries. Catholics from China, including bishops, were also expected to attend, giving them an opportunity to see the pope. No pontiff has ever set foot in China, and the country does not have formal relations with the Holy See.

The Chinese government offered no explanation for its decision to impede Catholic bishops’ travel to the papal Mass, according to America’s report. Buddhist representatives from Tibet will be allowed to meet with the pope despite China’s longstanding conflict with Tibet over its sovereignty and its opposition to the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama announced in March that he had recognized an 8-year-old Mongolian boy as the 10th Jebtsundamba Khutughtu, the head of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia. The Chinese Communist Party claims authority over Tibetan Buddhism and states that it alone can decided the new Dalai Lamas.

At a briefing with journalists on Tuesday, the Vatican did not confirm or deny whether Francis will meet with the new Jebtsundamba Khutughtu while in Mongolia.

While on the papal plane to Mongolia, Francis commented on the challenges posed by diplomacy when asked a question in the context of the war in Ukraine. “You have no idea how difficult (diplomacy) is,” he said. “Sometimes you need a sense of humor.”

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