BEIJING — Days after Chinese officials blocked Catholics from seeing the pope in South Korea, it’s still unclear who was behind the action or why it was taken.
Experts on the Chinese church said the travel bans were likely the work of overzealous local Communist Party bureaucrats responsible for religious affairs.
However, the central government in Beijing has offered no clarification on the matter, underscoring its discomfort about how to deal with the Vatican. The sides have no formal ties and are locked in a dispute over who has the right to appoint bishops and overall religious freedoms under the officially atheistic ruling party.
Reports said about 50 Catholic clergy and laypeople were stopped at Chinese airports earlier this week.
“This was an overreaction on the part of local officials who were nervous about what might happen if they were allowed to travel to South Korea,” said Anthony Lam of the Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong, which closely monitors the church in mainland China. “This kind of so-called preventative measure is totally unnecessary.”
Officials responsible for religion and other sensitive issues often act on their own out of fear of being held accountable if anything embarrassing should occur, said Lionel Jensen, an expert on Chinese religion and nationalism at the University of Notre Dame.
“I don’t think (the central government in) Beijing wants to be involved in something like this,” Jensen said.
It remains unclear whether any of the students had been detained or how many had made it to South Korea. Ren Dahai, secretary general of the Catholic charity Jinde Charities, said he’d heard reports of Catholics being held back at airports, but had no detailed information.
A priest in a parish outside the northern Chinese city of Xi’an said he had been warned by officials from the local religious affairs department not to go to South Korea for the pope’s visit.
“They contacted me twice this month asking me my plans and saying it would be bad for me if I went,” said the priest, who asked that his name and that of his church be withheld to avoid retaliation from local officials.
The plight of the church in China was referenced during a Mass that Pope Francis celebrated Saturday in Seoul.
During the part of the service when laypeople read out a list of prayers, a “prayer for persecuted churches” was read out in Chinese.
It implored God to “care for and help suffering churches ... so that they don’t ever lose hope, can overcome difficulties cooperating with other churches and can grow in the maturity of their faith.”
The pope’s first visit to Asia had spurred hopes for improved relations between Beijing and the Holy See after Francis’ plane was permitted to fly through Chinese airspace. Beijing had refused to let St. John Paul II fly through its airspace when he visited South Korea in 1989.
The Vatican sent the telegram from Francis’ chartered Alitalia plane as it entered Chinese airspace early Thursday, following Vatican protocol that calls for the pope to send such greetings whenever he flies over a foreign country.
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said Friday that it appeared the telegram never arrived. China’s embassy to Italy asked the Holy See for a copy of the telegram, saying it hadn’t received it. A copy was immediately provided to the embassy, he said.
Despite the glitch, China’s Foreign Ministry responded to reports of the telegram with a statement Thursday saying it remained committed to establishing a “constructive dialogue” and improving ties.
However, China’s entirely state-run media has imposed a virtual news blackout on the visit, ensuring the public at large would know little about Francis’ activities.
Jensen and Lam said there appears to be a debate within President Xi Jinping’s government over how to deal with growing religious belief in China. While some see religion as a force for social stability, they are opposed by communist hardliners wary of any challenge to the party’s authority, they said.
“It looks as if there is a changing attitude in Beijing about how to handle religion,” Jensen said. “The pope being in South Korea is causing some stirring.”
China severed relations with the Holy See in 1951 after the Communist Party took power and set up its own church outside the pope’s authority. China persecuted the church for years until restoring a degree of religious freedom and freeing imprisoned priests in the late 1970s.
South Korean organizers of the pope’s visit also expressed regret that some young Chinese Catholics had been prevented from traveling to South Korea to join in the festivities due to what they called the “complicated situation within China.”
The Catholic website AsiaNews said about 80 young people were staying away from the events after warnings of unspecified consequences if they participated. It said a number of Chinese priests residing in South Korea had also been called home before Francis’ arrival.