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The Hong Kong Cardinal, Joseph Zen on Tuesday warned that a pending deal between the Catholic Church and Beijing could be a “disaster” for religious freedom in China.

The outspoken 86-year-old former bishop has been one of the loudest opponents of a proposed rapprochement between the Vatican and China, which broke off diplomatic relations in 1951.

“From what I could know or guess, it will be a disaster,” Mr. Zen told dpa.

While still in the works, the deal would see the Vatican recognise seven bishops already appointed by the Communist Party without approval of the Pope – and considered renegade bishops outside of China – paving the way for improved relations with Beijing.

In exchange, Pope Francis would have say over the appointment of future bishops in China, according to the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong, although final details have not been made public.

The change would affect the estimated 10 to 12 million Catholics in China, millions of whom have continued to practice underground for the past 60 years in spite of persecution, while others have joined a state-backed version of the church.

While a deal would improve relations between the Vatican and Beijing, among underground Chinese Catholics and many more in Hong Kong the proposed deal has been seen as a betrayal.

“In the underground [church], many will come into the open (into the birdcage), it’s safer, and now with good conscience,” said Mr. Zen, who escaped communist China for the former British colony after World War II.

“Many others will be very sad and, maybe, also angry, feeling betrayed,” he added.

Other contentious points in the deal are that two “underground” bishops would be required to step down in favour of the Beijing seven, according to the Jesuit magazine America.

It is also unclear what would happen to China’s 30 other “underground” bishops.

The Catholic church in Taiwan, a self-governed island that Beijing considers a renegade province, would likely find itself left out by the Vatican as well.

In a show of good faith, Beijing has not appointed any new bishops since 2013, according to the Holy Spirit Study Centre.

The potential deal comes amidst increased religious repression in China under President Xi Jinping.

Catholics face “moderate” persecution – less than Uighurs or Tibetan Buddhists but more than ethnic minority Hui Muslims or Taoists – according to the US-based Freedom House, which measures political and religious freedom around the world.

Mr. Zen said he had “made several appeals to my brothers in China to keep their faith even if they have to face a complete defeat at the present.”

Mr. Zen’s criticism has been echoed by others in Hong Kong, most recently in a Free Catholics in China petition that was signed by 1,000 people around the world.

Petition organiser Kenneth Chan said detractors thought the deal’s cost was too high as it failed to offer any “protections” for religious freedom in China.

“In general we are happy to see any sign of a deal between China and the Vatican that will facilitate cause for the Chinese people coming in to our faith, but at the same time [we must ask] by what means and at what cost?” he said.

“These are practical questions if, for the sake of expanding our presence in China – so-called market-theory – we are going to sacrifice our religious principles,” he said.

The proposed deal marks the latest chapter in a long and often bumpy road for the Catholic Church in China, which was established in the late thirteenth century and enjoyed varying periods of success and persecution.

After the Vatican’s break with Beijing in 1951, the church was replaced by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which appoints its own bishops contrary to church law.

Religion was banned in China in the 1960s and 1970s during the Cultural Revolution, it has made a comeback since the country’s re-opening in 1978 under Deng Xiaoping.

However, it has had to compete for converts with the Protestant church, whose evangelical branches have seen huge success across Asia.

There are now some 58 million Protestants in China, according to Freedom House, almost five times more than the total Catholic populace.

Mr. Zen, who visited eastern Europe last year on a fact-finding mission, said he had little hope of the church’s future based on the Vatican’s previous attempts to improve relations with communist Europe in a policy known as “Ostpolitik.”

“The communists are fundamentally the same everywhere. They want to control the Church completely,” he said.

Zen said that the “profoundly Catholic” culture of Europe meant a communist government could do less “damage” to the church than in China.

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