Chinese Catholics pray at morning Mass in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing on Jan. 30. (Roman Pilipev/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

BEIJING — A group of influential Catholics published an open letter Monday to express their shock and disappointment about a report that the Vatican could soon reach a deal with the Chinese government, warning that it could create a schism in the church in China.

The Holy See has been in negotiations for several years with the Chinese Communist Party and is now believed to be close to an agreement over the appointment of bishops in China.

That agreement, under which responsibility for the appointment of bishops would probably be shared between the Vatican and the government, could pave the way for the eventual reestablishment of diplomatic relations between China and the Vatican, cut in 1951. The deal is also expected to confer Vatican recognition on seven state-appointed bishops, who had been excommunicated by previous popes.

But 15 leading Catholics, many of them from Hong Kong, have written to bishops all over the world arguing that the Chinese government should play no role in the selection of bishops. The group argued that the moral integrity of the seven “illicit” bishops was questionable.

“They do not have the trust of the faithful, and have never repented publicly,” they wrote. “If they were to be recognized as legitimate, the faithful in Greater China would be plunged into confusion and pain, and schism would be created in the Church in China.”

The 15 Catholics include university professors, lecturers, researchers, human rights activists and lawyers. They warned that a deal with the Chinese government could do irreparable harm  and that recent regulations put into effect this month allow for even greater government scrutiny over religion in China.

The Communist Party in China, under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, has repeatedly destroyed crosses and churches, while the state-backed China Patriotic Catholic Association maintains its heavy-handed control over the church, they said.

In his keynote speech to a major Communist Party Congress in  October, Xi underlined that the religion in China must also be “Chinese in orientation” and guided by the Communist Party to adapt to socialist society.

The Catholics complained that religious persecution has never stopped in China and warned that they could not see any possibility that it would, even if a deal were reached.

“We are worried that the agreement would not only fail to guarantee the limited freedom desired by the Church, but also damage the Church’s holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity, and deal a blow to the Church’s moral power,” they wrote.

“We earnestly ask you, with the love on the people of God, appeal to the Holy See: Please rethink the current agreement, and stop making an irreversible and regrettable mistake.”

Senior Vatican officials argue that any deal would help Catholics in China practice and evangelize their faith. There are about 10 million Catholics in China, but their numbers are dwarfed by the fast-growing number of Protestants, and some officials hope a deal could help Catholicism keep pace.

But retired Hong Kong cardinal Joseph Zen has been at the forefront of those arguing that a deal with a “totalitarian” regime would be immoral and a sellout.

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