The solitary image of Cardinal Joseph Zen in Saint Peter’s Square will not be lightly forgotten in Rome. In a country where the Catholic Church still weighs heavily on the daily political scenario - just note the recent controversial nomination of Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, as President of the Commission for the reform of health and social care for the elderly population by the Italian government, a topic obviously surrounded by heavy ethical debate - and every word uttered by the Pope is put to immediate political use by one side or another, these days it is his silence on the plight of the faithful in China that reverberates around the country and in the halls of Parliament.
The complete absence of any condemning remark or appeal by the Pontiff towards Chinese authorities on the crackdown on freedom and democracy in Hong Kong, on the atrocities - including forced sterilisations, abortions and outright rape in the attempt of assimilation, themes on which the Church is traditionally extremely outspoken - against the Muslim minorities, on the ongoing repression against the Tibetan population, and, last but not least, the increasing persecution and oppression of those adhering to the Christian faith within the People’s Republic of China(PRC) stands in stark contrast to the open attack launched once again by the Chinese Embassy in Rome towards U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his visit here.
On October 1, one day after the Symposium on Religious Freedom held by the U.S. Embassy to the Vatican, the spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy lashed out at the U.S. Secretary in a short note entitled "Mike Pompeo should put an end to his show - Complaint by the spokesman of the Chinese Embassy in Italy on the allegations by U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo on China:
"On September 30, during his visit to Rome U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo once again vilified the Chinese Communist Party(CCP), attacked China’s internal policies for no reason and attempted to destabilize relations between Italy and China. We strongly oppose and condemn such attitudes.
Mr. Pompeo slanders China with the excuse of protecting human rights, freedom of religion and cyber-security. His statements are filled with ideological prejudice and ignorance about China. In the 71 years since the establishment of the People’s Republic, the Chinese people, under the leadership of the CCP, have followed a path of development in accordance with national needs, achieving results visible to all. Today Chinese citizens, belonging to all ethnic groups, enjoy an unprecedented sense of satisfaction, happiness and security. The assessment of whether the situation of human rights, religious freedom and cyber-security in China is good or not is up to those who have the greatest right to speak on the matter, namely the 1.4 billion Chinese citizens and certainly not any given foreign politician.
In Italy there is a proverb saying “chi semina vento, raccoglie tempesta” (he who sows wind, will collect a storm). We invite the croaking Mr. Pompeo to put an end to his show as soon as possible."
Unfortunately for the Chinese Embassy, a number of “given foreign politicians” within the Italian Parliament did not take well to his complaint. Previously insulted by Chinese Ambassador Li Junhua for holding a cross-party hearing with Joshua Wong on the crackdown in Hong Kong, a group of “irresponsibles” - as they had been defined by Junhua last November, provoking a cross-party outcry in defence of parliamentary prerogatives and putting the issue of Hong Kong firmly on the Italian parliamentary agenda -, held a press conference at the Chamber of Deputies on the occasion of the Global Day of Action - Resist China.
Under heavy COVID-19 restrictions, the event, organised by the Global Committee for the Rule of Law “Marco Pannella” - founded by the late nonviolent leader Marco Pannella, a lifelong secular defender of human rights and religious freedom and a longstanding friend of religious minorities around the world, and presided by former Italian Foreign Minister Amb. Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata - in collaboration with the Tibetan Community in Italy and Italian IPAC member Paolo Formentini MP, was attended and supported by Members of Parliament from almost all political parties represented in Parliament: Enrico Borghi MP, Matteo Luigi Bianchi MP, Roberto Giachetti MP, Alessandro Giglio Vigna MP, Sen. Lucio Malan, Federico Mollicone MP, Sen. Roberto Rampi, and Lia Quartapelle Procopio MP.
They were unanimous in condemning the attack on U.S. Secretary Pompeo, and as Federico Mollicone MP put it: “The Chinese Embassy must refrain from treating Italy as a Chinese colony. It is not up to them to respond for us to the remarks made by a foreign dignitary to his Italian counterparts on an official visit to Italy.”
In fact, his words reflect a growing consciousness within the Italian political spectrum on its relationship with China. Having awakened much later than many other Western countries to the threat posed by the CCP not only to its own population but to the world, opposition towards the Dragon’s aggressive politics did not truly kick off until after the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding on the Belt and Road Initiative - many parts of which remain secret even to Members of Parliament - in March 2019 between the Italian and Chinese governments.
Since then, awareness and opposition has slowly grown across parties, gaining additional traction through the launch of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China to which Italian MPs have readily adhered. Calls for rescinding from the agreement have become more common, hearings on the atrocious human rights abuses within China have become frequent - as demonstrated by the hearing by the Foreign Affairs Committee on the same October 1 of World Uyghur President Dolkun Isa, who only three years prior had been held for four hours by counter-terrorism police to prevent him from entering and speaking at the Italian Senate - and even the reluctant and pro-China Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio has had to publicly speak out on human rights and freedoms in Hong Kong during Chinese FM Wang Yi’s surprise visit last August, thanks to the courageous action by Nathan Law and the cross-party support of Members of Parliament.
In all this, Tibetan activist Nyima Dhondup’s call to Parliament during the press conference on Thursday did not go unheeded. He - belonging to those ethnic groups the Chinese Embassy so readily defined as “happy, satisfied and secure” - underlined the decade-long oppression through which the CCP achieved so many of the “grand results” it touts around the world today and specifically asked MPs to stand together with the oppressed in defence of their most basic freedoms: life and liberty, including freedom of religion.
That same freedom of religion Cardinal Zen courageously came to defend in Rome, only to be rebuffed by a Vatican establishment keen on renewing its secret - common denominator for all dealings with the CCP - agreement with the PRC, which according to Vatican State Secretary Parolin “exclusively regards the nomination of bishops within China”. A pity that it was on this point exactly that Cardinal Zen, a faithful servant of the Church, attempted to reach out to He who serves as its shepherd. During the press conference at the Chamber, several MPs recalled the striking image of the 88-year-old who humbly travelled to Rome to seek the support of his Pontiff in defending the heart and soul of that Church, and stressed - in all respect - their strong support to his message in the defence of freedom of religion around the world, including the PRC. They called upon the Vatican to renounce to their silence and join the world in denouncing the atrocious crimes of the CCP.
Cardinal Zen’s call may not have breached the walls of Saint Peter’s, but it has been received loud and clear within the walls of the Italian Parliament. His mission to Rome may therefore not have yielded the immediate result one may have hoped for, but his message has further invigorated Italian MPs to stand with the people of Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet, Southern Mongolia, Taiwan and all those oppressed by the Communist regime.
(Laura Harth, a human rights activist, she coordinates activities with the Global Committee for the Rule of Law “Marco Pannella” (GCRL). She also acts as Representative to the United Nations Institutions for the Nonviolent Radical Party, Transnational and Transparty (NRPTT), and as a regional liaison for the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC).)
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