Hong Kong’s outspoken Cardinal Joseph Zen on Thursday criticised Pope Francis for not understanding the Chinese regime, warning the pontiff’s historic deal with Beijing could lead to the “annihilation of the real Church” in China.

There are an estimated 12 million Catholics in China, divided between a government-run association whose clergy are chosen by the Communist Party and the unofficial church which swears allegiance to the Vatican.

Cardinal Zen
Cardinal Zen. Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

An agreement struck last month on the appointment of bishops paved the way for a rapprochement between the Holy See and Beijing, establishing diplomatic ties for the first time since 1951.

Francis recognised seven clergy appointed by China as part of the deal, despite fears the accord would be used by Beijing to further crack down on worshippers outside the official church.

Writing for the New York Times’ international edition, Zen said the pope had conceded too much to Beijing and that the agreement would pave the way for the persecution of Catholics.

“In fact, the deal is a major step toward the annihilation of the real Church in China”, Zen wrote in a front page opinion piece titled “The pope doesn’t get China”.

“If I were a cartoonist I would draw the Holy Father on his knees offering the keys of the kingdom of heaven to President Xi Jinping and saying, ‘Please recognise me as the pope’.”

Zen added that Francis was “naturally optimistic about communism” because of his Argentine roots, which had led the pontiff to mistakenly trust in China’s ruling Communist Party.

Pope Francis
Pope Francis. Photo: Flickr/Aleteia Image Department.

“He doesn’t know them as the persecutors they become once in power, like the Communists in China,” Zen wrote.

The Vatican’s accord with Beijing was signed after a recent clampdown on religious worship in China.

Churches have been destroyed in some regions, crosses have been removed from church steeples, church-run kindergartens have been closed and authorities have clamped down on Bible sales.

Shanghai-born Zen, the former bishop of Hong Kong, is well-known for his vocal opposition to political oppression in China and his support for democratic reform.

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