Head of China’s state-backed Catholic church will visit Hong Kong as ties with Vatican are strained

HONG KONG (AP) — The leader of China's Communist Party-sponsored version of the Catholic church will visit Hong Kong this month at the invitation of the city's pope-appointed Roman Catholic cardinal, fostering dialogue as China-Vatican relations remain strained.

Joseph Li, the state-appointed archbishop of Beijing, will take a five-day trip to Hong Kong starting Nov. 14 at the invitation of the city’s newly appointed cardinal Stephen Chow, according to a statement from the Hong Kong diocese.

Chow made the invitation during his landmark trip to Beijing in April — the first visit to the Chinese capital by the city’s bishop in nearly three decades — in a symbolic gesture that experts said could strengthen the fragile relationship between China and the Vatican.

During Li's visit, he will meet with Chow and “different diocesan offices to promote exchanges and interactions between the two dioceses,” the statement said, without elaborating.

Asked Saturday about the significance of Li's visit, Chow said it was “important that we are connected. ... everything starts with a humanity first, not by structure, not by policy, but human connection."

"With that connection, we can walk together, we can talk about how to strengthen the structure, how to make some policy, even in terms of policy in the long term, (and) how would that help us to witness for the love of God. Now, I’m not saying this as a very abstract thing. Love is really the remedy for a lot of problems in the world today," Chow said.

As a cardinal, Chow said his job is to foster better communication between the sides.

"Sometimes, they’re really just misunderstandings” arising from one’s own assumptions, he said.

Beijing and the Vatican severed diplomatic ties in 1951 following the Communist Party’s rise to power and the expulsion of foreign priests. Thousands of Chinese priests and laypeople were thrown into jail and labor camps and sometimes persecuted to death. Since the break in ties, Catholics in China have been divided between those who belong to an official, state-sanctioned church and those in an underground church loyal to the pope. The Vatican recognizes members of both as Catholics but claims the exclusive right to choose bishops.

The Vatican and China signed an accord in 2018 over the thorny issue of bishop nominations, but Beijing has violated it. Most recently Pope Francis was forced to accept the unilateral appointment of a new bishop of Shanghai.

Francis in September insisted that the Vatican’s relations with China were going well but said work must still be done to show Beijing that the Catholic Church isn’t beholden to a foreign power.

The 2018 agreement has been harshly criticized by Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen, who was detained in May last year on suspicion of colluding with foreign forces under a Beijing-imposed national security law that jailed or silenced many activists. He was released on bail and has yet to be formally charged, but he and five others were fined in a separate case last November for failing to register a now-defunct fund set up to help arrested protesters.

However, Zen was present at a Thanksgiving Mass on Saturday afternoon at which Chow presided in his role as bishop and received congratulations and best wishes from all members of the Hong Kong Catholic community, including those of Indian, Indonesian, Philippine, American and European origin.

Chow pledged to be a servant of all 401,000 Catholics, who make up roughly 16% of the territory's population.

There was no immediate word on a possible visit by Li from the Communist Party-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association, which formally represents the estimated 10 million Catholics on the mainland.