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Analysis: China and the Vatican - What if the US recognizes Taiwan?

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 17, 2020 / 12:45 pm (CNA).- Officials in Rome and Beijing are now confidently predicting an extension to the 2018 Vatican-China deal, despite continued persecution of Catholics in the country and little visible progress on the appointment of bishops. 

The Vatican-China agreement continues to be viewed by many as a bad deal for the Holy See. Rome appears to have little leverage in the talks, and few cards to play. While the U.S. has made clear its own bleak assessment of the situation, there is one dramatic diplomatic maneuver from the Trump administration that could strengthen Rome’s hand, and rebalance the relationship between all three powers.

The pivot point for such a move is Taiwan. And it may be under consideration.

Sources tell CNA that some in the White House, and in foreign policy conversations, believe Trump might be considering strengthening official diplomatic relations with Taiwan before the election, a path already begun with a 2018 act of Congress and the signing of a 2019 consular agreement. Taking more steps toward full recognition and relations with Taiwan would have far-reaching global effect, and could have considerable impact on the Vatican-China deal. 

The Republic of China, as Taiwan is formally known, is the one of China’s foremost domestic and foriegn policy priorities. Seen by Beijing as a rebel province, despite never having been under Communist control, diplomatically isolating the small island democracy has been a constant priority for the mainland. 

For decades, China has pressured the United Nations and other member states to de-recognize Taiwan and recognize the People’s Republic as the “only” China. Today, only a handful of nations have diplomatic ties with Taiwan, with those few now falling away under economic pressure by China. 

The Holy See is the last remaining European country to recognize Taiwan, and the heart of Vatican-China relations remains working towards one unified Catholic Church in China, with the Vatican adopting Beijing’s “one China” diplomatic policy. The signs are that this may be happening.

In recent months, as the Holy See and China have negotiated an extension of the 2018 agreement, Vatican support for Taiwan has been noticeably quiet. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Holy See was the only diplomatic ally of Taiwan which did not make an appeal to allow Taiwan to participate in the World Health Organization’s assembly meetings. Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in May that the Vatican would voice its support for Taiwan through other channels.

But in July, the Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post quoted a Vatican source saying that “Taiwan should not be offended if the embassy in Taipei is moved back to its original address in Beijing.” 

This week, Taiwan’s foreign ministry said that it had received assurances from the Vatican that the renewal of the Vatican-China deal would not have formal diplomatic repercussions for Taiwan. This is likely true, for now, but unlikely to be because of any diplomatic commitment by the Secretariat of State to Taiwan. 

The most likely reason Rome will decline to break formally with Taipei in favor of Beijing, at least for now, is that it remains one of the strongest cards it has to play in driving for a deal that might secure real freedom for the Church in China, where Xi Jinping’s campaign for the Sinicization of religion continues to impose draconian measures on Catholics. 

The Vatican’s willingness to play that card, and Xi’s willingness to offer something real in return, could change dramatically if President Trump took more steps towards full recognition of Taiwan - something at once diplomatically unthinkable, and entirely plausible.

This week, the Trump administration heralded new diplomatic progress in gaining the recognition of Israel by Arab nations. The most recent announcement, that the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain would assume full diplomatic ties with Israel, is the latest in a series of unlikely coups for U.S. diplomacy in the region, following the dramatic decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

When Trump announced his intention to move the U.S. embassy, many observers predicted it would provoke outrage and backlash from the Arab world, and harm prospects for peace in the region. So far, the reverse seems to have proven the case - to the surprise of many.

The administration continues to pursue aggressive trade policies with China, and has made clear its displeasure with Chinese opacity during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, China has pursued a genocidal campaign against the Uyghurs internally, while driving an aggressive foreign policy - staging increasingly bellicose claims to international waters and even sailing warships into western ports unannounced - largely without international repercussions.

But Trump has been signalling movement toward a “two Chinas” policy. In August, HHS Secretary Alex Azar met with Taiwan’s president in Taipei, the first U.S. cabinet official to visit Taiwan since diplomatic ties were broken 1979. This week, the U.S. sent a state department official to attend a memorial service for a Taiwanese official.

If Trump continues down this path in weeks to come, and encourages other countries to follow suit, much as he did with Israel, the predictions would likely be dire. Many would forecast an immediate worsening of relations with Beijing and a slew of cyber attacks on U.S. agencies and companies. But Trump might also find willing allies in countries recently subject to intimidating and retaliatory behavior by China, like Australia and India.

From Rome’s point of view, American recognition of Taiwan would reset the playing field between the Church and Beijing.

In the first place, China would suddenly have a much greater incentive to keep the Vatican at the negotiating table. 

Thus far, Pope Francis has remained on the sidelines regarding China’s treatment of the Church on the mainland, its network of concentration camps in Xinjiang province, and its crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong, letting regional leaders like Cardinal Joseph Zen and Cardinal Maung Bo talk tough over the Roman silence. But faced with a concerted international campaign recognizing a free and democratic Taiwan and isolating Beijing, keeping the pope quiet could suddenly become a much more urgent goal for China.

Conversely, American recognition of Taiwan would free up Rome’s hand and bring China to the negotiating table in earnest. 

In the face of a concerted push by America to isolate Beijing, China could actually be more incentivized than ever to open formal diplomatic relations with the Holy See, and consider making actual concessions on issues like religious freedom within the country. 

While observers might assume that Xi Jinping considers Vatican relations a sideshow, if he actually considers them at all, the Vatican deal might matter for Xi’s political future.

Although his tenure in leadership is supposed to be life-long, in China Xi’s position is not considered nearly as secure as is widely assumed in the West.

The full effects of the coronavirus in China may not have been reported in official statistics, but they have been severe and deeply traumatic. The economic consequences of the pandemic for China have also been - at least by some estimates - as severe as anywhere, if not worse. Intense summer flooding, even to the point of visible strain on the Three Gorges Dam, have also taken thousands of lives and devastated essential industrial areas.

Xi’s internal crackdown on dissent and free expression, most visible in Hong Kong but actually more widespread, has not been accepted easily. And sources in China report widespread unease with Xi’s antagonist foreign policies, including his courting conflict along the Indian border while also trying to stake claims to international waters in the South China Sea. 

It is not an uncommon opinion in China - albeit one not commonly expressed - that, with a growing sense he’s overplaying his hand at home and abroad, Xi could face a more-or-less serious challenge to his position during the next meeting of the communist party’s National Congress. 

In this context, even a threatened American recognition of Taiwan could leave Xi scrambling for diplomatic victories, and reassessing the risks of provoking a Church which he considers a potentially systemic ideological threat. The Vatican’s insistently modest requests for the barest measure of progress may suddenly appear a price well worth paying for a small victory.

For the U.S., strengthening the Church’s ability to negotiate with China, and winning even the narrowest breathing space for Chinese Catholics, would likely do more to advance civil liberties in China then decades of free trade.

Such a change to the diplomatic order may appear wildly improbable. But there is a U.S. Under Secretary of State in Taipei right now for a memorial service. And Trump, who is known for doing the unexpected, holds the only cards that will decide what happens next.

In diplomacy there is always a crucial distinction between the unlikely and the impossible.

Irish priest refuses submission to Vatican's doctrinal propositions

CNA Staff, Sep 17, 2020 / 12:10 pm (CNA).- Fr. Tony Flannery, a Redemptorist priest from Ireland who was barred from public ministry by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has declined to submit to four doctrinal propositions as a condition of returning to ministry.

“Fr Flannery should not return to public ministry prior to submitting a signed statement regarding his positions on homosexuality, civil unions between persons of the same sex, and the admission of women to the priesthood,” the CDF wrote to the Redemptorists, The Irish Times reported Sept. 16.

Fr. Flannery told the Irish daily, “I could not possibly sign those propositions.”

He was barred from public ministery in 2012 for his views on the nature of the sacramental priesthood and human sexuality. He had helped to found the Association of Catholic Priests, a group whose constitution places a special emphasis on “the primacy of the individual conscience” and “a redesigning of Ministry in the Church, in order to incorporate the gifts, wisdom and expertise of the entire faith community, male and female.”

Redemptorist leadership in Ireland had written to the order's superior general, who in turn wrote to the CDF, seeking for Fr. Flannery to be allowed to minister again.

According to the Association of Catholic Priests, the CDF asked that Fr. Flannery, to return to ministry, sign a proposition that “according to the Tradition and the doctrine of the Church incorporated in the Canon Law (c. 1024), a baptized male alone receives sacred ordination validly.”

This proposition regarding the reservation of priesthood to men was supported by excerpts from St. John Paul II's 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis and Pope Francis' 2020 apostolic exhortation La querida Amazonia.

Regarding the moral liceity of homosexual acts, Fr. Flannery was to submit to the proposition that “Since the homosexual practices are contrary to the natural law and do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity, they are not approved by the moral teaching of the Catholic Church,” supported by a quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The priest was also asked to assent to the proposition that “The Marriage covenant, by which a man and a woman form with each other an intimate communion of life and love, has been founded and endowed with its own special laws by the Creator (CCC 1660). Other forms of union do not correspond to God’s plan for marriage and family. Therefore, they are not allowed by the Catholic Church.”

This proposition on marriage was supported by the Catechism of the Catholic Church and by Amoris laetitia, Pope Francis' 2016 apostolic exhortation on love in the family.

Finally, Fr. Flannery was invited to submit to the proposition that “In so far as it contradicts the foundations of a genuine Christian anthropology, gender theory is not accepted by Catholic teaching,” supported by the Congregation for Catholic Education's 2019 document “Male and female he created them”.

The priest told The Irish Times that he has long supported and emphasized “the necessity, of full equality for women, including ordination. How could I possibly sign that first proposition.”

He called the proposition regarding homosexual acts “appalling” and said, “I could not submit to it.” He noted that he voted in favor of same-sex marriage, and that “I don’t know enough about Gender Theory to have any strong views on it, and I don’t know where that one came from.”

We Are Church Ireland, a group that supports, among other things, women's priestly ordination, said Sept. 17 that they “fully support and applaud Fr Tony Flannery’s decision not to sign the CDF document.”

They said the propositions of the congregation “are currently being widely discussed in the Catholic Church around the world, for example at the German Synodal Way.”

“We thought that under Pope Francis dialogue was being encouraged and that “silencing” would no longer be the tool of engagement,” the group stated.

In June 2018, Pope Francis sent a 28-page letter to German Catholics urging them to focus on evangelization in the face of a “growing erosion and deterioration of faith.”

“Every time an ecclesial community has tried to get out of its problems alone, relying solely on its own strengths, methods and intelligence, it has ended up multiplying and nurturing the evils it wanted to overcome,” he wrote.

Pope Francis said that participants in the “Synodal Way” faced a particular “temptation”, at the basis of which “is the belief that the best response to the many problems and shortcomings that exist, is to reorganize things, change them and ‘put them back together’ to bring order and make ecclesial life easier by adapting it to the current logic or that of a particular group.”

'Expedited' investigation ordered over ICE detainee hysterectomies

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 17, 2020 / 11:30 am (CNA).- This story has been updated.

The acting director of U.S. immigration services has ordered an expedited investigation into allegations that hysterectomies were performed on immigrant women in federal custody without their full consent. 

On Monday, The Intercept reported a whistleblower complaint had been filed by several advocacy groups on behalf of a nurse at a U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center for migrants in Georgia. 

The complaint was filed with the inspector general’s office of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). On Wednesday, National Review reported that Ken Cuccinelli, acting Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and acting Deputy Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, ordered the investigation to be expedited and said he will be conducting a separate, parallel investigation. DHS staff confirmed the report to CNA on Thursday.

The nurse, Dawn Wooten, as well as several immigrant women, claimed that an apparently high rate of hysterectomies were performed on immigrant women while in ICE custody at Irwin County Detention Center, and that some of the women did not understand the procedure they were receiving. The center is operated by the private prison company LaSalle Corrections.

On Thursday, the Daily Caller reported that the doctor identified in the whistleblower report for allegedly conducting the hysterectomies—Dr. Mahendra Amin—was indicted in 2013 by federal prosecutors for Medicaid fraud.

According to the indictment, Amin was believed to be part owner of Irwin County hospital, where patients were given unnecessary medical procedures and the hospital in turn billed Medicare and Medicaid; Amin settled with prosecutors for $520,000 in 2015.

Cuccinelli’s investigation will include a Coast Guard doctor, a medical nurse from the deputy secretary’s office, and a lawyer in the DHS general counsel’s office, National Review reported.

In addition to seeking confirmation, CNA also asked DHS who specifically would be part of Cuccinelli’s separate investigation, and why the parallel investigation was ordered in addition to the inspector general’s review; DHS staff did not address those questions directly.

According to the whistleblower complaint, the immigrant women were referred to one doctor in particular who was allegedly known for performing frequent hysterectomies; Wooten called the doctor “the uterus collector.” Wooten reported that some nurses could not communicate well with Spanish-speaking migrants, even resorting to using Google Translate to talk to them about medical procedures.

A senior ICE official has reportedly disputed the claims that immigrant women were allegedly subject to hysterectomies without full consent. A top ICE medical official said only two women were referred for hysterectomies at Irwin County Detention Center since 2018, according to NPR.

More than 170 members of Congress wrote the DHS inspector general’s office on Wednesday asking for an investigation.

“We are horrified to see reports of mass hysterectomies performed on detained women in the facility, without their full, informed consent and request that the Office of Inspector General (OIG) conduct an immediate investigation,” the letter stated.

The private prison company LaSalle, which operates the ICE detention center in Irwin County, is also the subject of a lawsuit filed by the family of a deceased woman Holly Barlow-Austin on Wednesday, the Washington Post reported. 

In the lawsuit, Barlow-Austin’s family members charged LaSalle with neglect by company guards at an East Texas prison, neglect that resulted in Barlow-Austin leaving the prison “blind, emaciated, and barely able to move.” The family alleges that LaSalle was culpable in Barlow-Austin’s death.

‘I will die with them and for them’: Franciscan friar who survived Syrian War dies of COVID-19

Rome Newsroom, Sep 17, 2020 / 11:00 am (CNA).- When asked by his superior if he wanted to leave Aleppo during the Syrian Civil War, Fr. Edward Tamer replied that he would remain with the people “to die with them and for them.”

Now, having survived the worst of the violence of the war, the Franciscan friar has died of COVID-19 at the age of 83 in the service of the poor whom he desired to give his life for.

Tamer is one of two Franciscan priests in Syria to have died of the coronavirus within 10 days of each other in recent weeks. At least two other friars in Syria have also tested positive for the coronavirus.

Fr. Firas Hejazin (pictured below) also died of COVID-19, at the age of 49. Originally from Jordan, he contracted the coronavirus while serving at the St. Anthony Franciscan Monastery in Aleppo in August. He was then transferred to the Jordanian capital, Amman, where he died. 

Fr. Firas Lutfi, the Franciscan regional minister for Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, knew both priests personally. He told CNA that the two friars were remembered fondly by the people of Aleppo for their joy in serving others.

“The testimony that they lived is really great,” Lutfi said. “They came in hard times to share the suffering and the problematic and catastrophic situation in Aleppo.”

“Every time that people came to the St. Anthony Monastery they could find serenity and encouragement by their presence,” he told CNA.

Tamer was a Lebanese priest who spent the last 20 years of his life in Aleppo, including the entirety of the Syrian Civil War. He served in schools and translated theological texts into Arabic.

“Several times the superior asked him if he wanted to -- because he was elderly -- to go out of Syria,” Lutfi remembered. He said that Tamer’s reply was always the same: “I am here for the people. I will die with them and for them.”



Tamer is remembered as someone who remained beside the people who were suffering, he said.

“Fr. Firas Hejazin was a young priest who came just one year ago. He was Jordanian and he was full of life, and had many projects and lots of energy,” Lutfi said.

“He decided to come to Syria, especially in Aleppo ... knowing that there are difficulties,” he said. “With his smile, with his simplicity, with his obedience as a friar, as a Franciscan of the Holy Land, he came and he wanted to do the best, to offer the best testimony.”

Lutfi, who was in Syria Sept. 16, said that the difficulties and poverty faced by the Syrian people have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

“The suffering of people is huge and requires immediately someone to help. Unfortunately the sanctions and the embargo from the beginning of the war damaged the situation. For example, the oil for the cars … there is no oil these days and you have to wait maybe 24 hours to have your turn,” he explained.

He said that many people were out of work and that he also heard reports of many cases of medical staff contracting COVID-19.

The two Franciscan priests were honored in private funerals due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak in Aleppo. There have been only 3,654 cases of COVID-19 documented in Syria, but the United Nations has said that cases in Syria have been under-reported for months and daily deaths have risen since July.

“Their generous service and beautiful presence will remain in the heart and memory of all people of Aleppo,” Lutfi said.

Pope Francis' new prayer card features grandmother and grandchild from Romania

Vatican City, Sep 17, 2020 / 09:32 am (CNA).- Pope Francis’ newest prayer card, which he hands out to the people he meets, features a grandmother and grandchild from his trip to Romania in early summer 2019.

Pope Francis was moved by the smile of a woman he saw among the crowds from his popemobile in the city of Iaşi.

Though brief, that moment made an impression on Francis, who mentioned her in his speech soon after, from the square in front of the Palace of Culture.

“I do not want to neglect to tell you about an experience I had just as I was coming into the square,” he told those gathered in the square June 2, 2019. “There was an elderly lady, quite elderly, a grandmother. In her arms was a grandchild, about two months old, not more.”

“As I passed by, she showed him to me,” the pope described. “She smiled, and smiled with a knowing smile, as if she was saying to me: ‘Look, now I can dream!’ I was very moved in that moment and I didn’t have the courage to go and bring her up here.”

Francis tied the encounter to his message about the importance of the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren.

The pope often speaks to young people about the importance of being close to their familial, cultural, and religious roots, as learned from their grandparents. He also said in Romania the young are important for the elderly: “when young and old meet, the elderly are not afraid to dream,” he said.

A photo was snapped of the grandmother and child by a Vatican photographer as he passed by, and now, at Francis’ request, has been made into a prayer card.

On the back of the card are the pope’s impromptu comments in Romania about the experience.

Pope Francis spoke again about his experience seeing the grandmother and grandchild in his comments aboard the papal plane from Romania to Rome the next day.

He said “I am happy because yesterday I referenced that grandmother... it was a gesture of understanding with the eyes.”

“At that moment I was so emotional, that I did not react and then the popemobile went ahead and I could not tell this grandmother to come, to show this gesture, and I said to the Lord Jesus: ‘It is a pain, but you have the ability to solve it!’”

Francis said he was glad the Vatican photographer saw this moment happening and snapped the photo, and said he was happy to see the image had been made public.

He added that he felt like the elderly woman was saying to him “these are the roots. This will grow, it will not be like me, but I give my [roots].”

Pope Francis has had other touching encounters with elderly women while on foreign trips. In Trujillo, Peru, in January 2018, he stopped the popemobile when he saw the sign of a woman which read: “My name is Trinidad I’m 99 years old. I cannot see. I want to touch your hand.”

Francis embraced her and gave her his blessing.