With the Vatican-China deal on the appointment of bishops due to expire in October, Cardinal Pietro Parolin hopes that the agreement can be tweaked.
In a sit-down interview with CNA, the Vatican Secretary of State discussed the deal, the text of which has never been published. But he did not go into detail or explain precisely which aspects he hoped to change.
He also spoke about the Vatican’s close interest in Vietnam, the Balkans, and the Caucasus region.
The Holy See first signed the provisional agreement with China in September 2018. The agreement had a two-year term and was renewed for another two years in October 2020, with no adjustments or amendments.
Since it was put in place, there have been six ordinations of Catholic bishops in China with the twofold approval of the Holy See and the Chinese government. The terms of the agreement have never been disclosed.
With the expiration date approaching, Cardinal Parolin said: “We are reflecting on what to do. COVID did not help us because it interrupted the ongoing dialogue. We are trying to resume the dialogue concretely, with meetings that we hope will occur soon. We will reflect on the results of the agreement and possibly on the need to make clarifications or review some points.”
Asked if he would like to tweak the agreement, the 67-year-old Italian cardinal replied: “I hope so.”
Regarding relations with Vietnam, another of the few remaining countries with no formal diplomatic relations with the Holy See, Cardinal Parolin said that a Vatican delegation would be visiting the country again soon.
“We are working on a consolidated method of relationships and dialogue,” he said. “After the appointment of the non-resident representative of the Holy See in Vietnam in 2012, the next step should be reached, that of the presence of a representative of the Holy See in the country.”
Another region of particular interest to the Holy See is the Balkans. During Pope Francis’ trip to Greece, there was a bilateral meeting between Secretariat of State officials and those of the Greek foreign ministry. Minister Nikos Dendias proposed a control room on the Balkans, a sort of diplomatic table at which the Holy See would have a seat.
There has been no news of a follow-up to the proposal, and even Cardinal Parolin said he was unaware of any concrete developments. “The idea for now has remained as such,” he said.
But, he added, “on the part of the diplomacy of the Holy See, there is special attention for the Balkans. It is an area where there are significant tensions and the fear that these tensions could lead to something worse. [Vatican ‘foreign minister’] Archbishop Gallagher recently visited Bosnia-Herzegovina precisely to testify to the interest of the Holy See.”
“I do not know if this idea of the control room will recover,” he added, “but we certainly must not stop paying attention and help the Balkan area in all possible ways.”
The Holy See is called to maintain a tricky balance in the Caucasus. In particular, after the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and the painful peace for the Armenians, there are concerns that the region’s Christian heritage is at risk.
Nagorno-Karabakh was merged with Azerbaijan during the Soviet period and then declared independence from Baku when Azerbaijan itself broke away from the Soviet Union. The 2020 conflict brought a territory previously controlled by Armenians back under Azerbaijani control, sparking concern for its cultural heritage.
The European Parliament recently passed a resolution condemning “the destruction of cultural heritage in Nagorno-Karabakh,” while in December, the International Court of Justice said that Azerbaijan should “take all necessary measures to prevent and punish acts of vandalism and desecration affecting Armenian cultural heritage.”
The Azeris also complain that the Armenians in the region have destroyed their cultural heritage. The Holy See therefore finds itself in a problematic situation as it has good relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan. For example, the Holy See and Azerbaijan signed an agreement to restore and conserve the Santa Priscilla catacombs in Rome. Azerbaijan has financed several restoration works through a foundation chaired by the wife of its President Ilham Aliyev.
The Holy See finds itself in the difficult position of remaining balanced without ruining relations. To maintain a balance, Parolin explained, “we always refer to the principles that should guide international relations.”
Concerning Nagorno Karabakh, he said, “the Holy See supported the proposal of a commission of experts from UNESCO, to be sent to the site with an exploratory mandate to verify because there are mutual accusations of putting its historical and cultural heritage at risk.”
“The Holy See had also offered the availability to participate with an expert. So far, however, it has not been possible. This also indicates the tensions that continue to exist, so much so that no initiative, not even of third parties, can be created to help the parties get closer.”
The Secretary of State also addressed the issue of religious buildings at risk in Europe, where there are more and more attacks on places of worship. For example, a French government report released in February showed that in 2021, there were 1,659 anti-religious acts in France, of which 857 were anti-Christian acts.
Cardinal Parolin said: “It is, unfortunately, a very common phenomenon in France, and it is still not clear what the causes of the fire of Notre-Dame were. The number of attacks indicates that religious intolerance is growing despite all efforts to respect each other.”
“I see this commitment to respect at high levels. For example, I was able to breathe it during my trip to Dubai for the day of the Holy See at the Expo. But, on the other hand, we cannot neglect the issue of radicalization due to many different factors.”
Finally, Cardinal Parolin touched on Africa. Pope Francis will visit the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan on July 2-7. The pope has devoted considerable attention to South Sudan, the world’s newest country, summoning its leaders to a spiritual retreat at the Vatican in 2019.
Meanwhile, the Holy See established a nunciature in South Sudan in June 2019. The nuncio to South Sudan is traditionally the nuncio to Nairobi, Kenya, where he also represents the Holy See at the United Nations office in Africa. The establishment of a residential nunciature, with a chargé d’affaires who takes care of relations, is a sign of particular diplomatic attention by the Holy See.
But Cardinal Parolin said that there was no talk of the appointment of a nuncio only for South Sudan. “This is not an issue we are studying at the moment. Nor has the question been raised in view of the pope’s trip,” he explained.
Pope Francis has wanted to visit South Sudan for many years, but the spiritual retreat in 2019 did not immediately create the conditions for a visit. Finally, Archbishop Gallagher visited the country in December 2021, paving the way for the announcement of the papal trip.
Cardinal Parolin recalled that Pope Francis “had wanted a spiritual retreat, with the idea of giving new life to the ongoing negotiations and giving a spiritual tone to the dialogue.”
“Ours is a diplomacy of speech and persuasion. It works if it is listened to,” he commented.
It is indeed a limitation, which is also seen in the Ukraine war, where the prevailing narrative cannot hide the fact that the Ukrainians are fighting alone.
“And they are paying for the tension,” noted Cardinal Parolin, “especially at the level of the civilian population.”
“So I believe that this should be the only point of view to start from today. Not so much the diplomatic, political discourse, but the awareness that people are paying too high a price.”