In 1996, a rising star in Vatican diplomacy named Fr Pietro Parolin brokered a deal with the Vietnamese government that helped to re-establish relations between the two sovereign states, which had been estranged since the fall of the Diệm regime. Under the terms of their agreement, Rome would recommend three candidates to a vacant bishopric. Hanoi would then make the final selection.

The accord was hailed as a victory for the Vatican’s new Ostpolitik: its efforts to reconcile itself to the post-Soviet bloc and, ultimately, to mediate a lasting peace between the East and West.

Parolin has long floated the possibility of using the Vietnam accord as a model for rapprochement with other Cold War adversaries, particularly China. As deputy foreign minister under Benedict XVI, he admitted that the model is “not ideal, but it’s a way to take a step forward and increase our engagement” with the Chinese. When Francis appointed Parolin his Secretary of State in 2013, it was only a matter of time before the Holy See signed up for a power-sharing experiment in Beijing.

Then, on January 23, Asia News reported on a Vatican delegation that visited China last December. The delegation called on two bishops of the underground Church, Peter Zhuang of Shantou and Joseph Guo Xijin of Mindong. They were asked to resign their sees in favour of their counterparts in the government-backed Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), Joseph Huang Bingzhang and Vincent Zhan Silu.

Beijing has spent 61 years persecuting Catholics who refuse to submit to the CPCA and remain loyal to Rome. Five underground priests were “disappeared” – imprisoned or executed without a public trial – in April 2016. Clearly, securing basic human rights for Chinese Catholics should be a top priority for the Vatican.

But is it wise for Parolin to use his agreement with Hanoi as a precedent?For one, the situation of Vietnamese Catholics has arguably worsened since the 1996 accord. Last year the government passed a Law on Beliefs and Religions, which comes into effect this month, severely limiting religious groups’ ability to engage in social services and evangelisation.

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