Controlling the underground Catholic Church in China has been a long-term goal of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as it seeks to eliminate the few remaining hotbeds of dissent among its people.

This task was made all the easier by the maneuvering of the now-disgraced former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who repeatedly travelled between Beijing and Rome at Pope Francis’ request to carve out an agreement between the Vatican and Xi Jinping, coming into effect two years ago.

Although details of that provisional agreement remain confidential, the concordat has seen the communist government being given a crucial role in the appointment of bishops, all of whom will be leaders in the official, government-controlled church, called the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. Seven other bishops already appointed by the government to this church, which has long been considered illegitimate by the papacy, were also reconciled with Rome at the time, and, much to the government’s delight, can now claim to be in full communion with the pope.

The underground bishops, priests, nuns and Catholic laity however, who have regularly faced prison and persecution for their fidelity to Rome, were thus abandoned by the Vatican in an agreement that brings them finally under the control of the CCP. Their priests are now expected to register with and minister in the government-controlled church, thus leaving the underground Catholic Church that every pope before Francis had recognised as authentic.

That agreement is now up for renewal, and the signs are ominous that Pope Francis and the Vatican are intent on cementing their relationship with a communist government that has since continued its violent crackdown on remaining underground Catholics and other religious believers.

Those unfamiliar with Catholic theology may not see the significance of the deal between the pope and Xi Jinping, but for underground Catholics who have fought off countless attempts at communist control of sacred matters, the deal has been a devastating blow since its inception, enabling Xi Jinping to insert himself as the real leader of their faith.

The situation was best characterised by the desperate pleas of Cardinal Joseph Zen. The retired archbishop of Hong Kong repeatedly travelled to Rome in the hope of persuading the pope not to press forward with a deal, but was not granted a meeting on his most recent attempt to talk with the Argentinian.

Zen has went on the record to accuse Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin of “manipulating” Pope Francis into signing the deal, whom he says has “lost everything and got nothing.”

“The older bishops are dying, there are less than 30 bishops left in the underground Church, and no new priests being ordained,” he told Catholic News Agency.

“But we hope that [Chinese Catholics] can keep the faith in their families — so we have to say, ‘back to the catacombs!’

“Even in the official church, the faithful are more and more controlled. On the top of the church they tell you to destroy the crosses, inside the church, they put the image of Xi Jinping—maybe not in the center, but in some place. Now they have to have the flag in the church, they have to sing the national anthem.

“People under 18 years of age are not allowed into churches, not allowed in any religious activity. Christmas is forbidden, in the whole country. Even the bible should be re-translated, according to the Communist orthodoxy. So now we see more and more control on the Church, and there is a really a universal lamentation in the whole Church.

“Now, I cannot contact directly anybody in China – it’s too dangerous for them. But sometimes people can come to Hong Kong, to see me and they cry, they say ‘what can we do?’ I say ‘What can I do for you? I can do nothing. I have no voice in the Vatican, simply none.’

“The Vatican is helping the government, surrendering, giving everything into their hands.

“So I’m—I can sincerely say that I am not—I think the pope is okay. But I’m fighting [Cardinal Pietro] Parolin Because the bad things come from him. From him. He’s still so, so, so optimistic about the so-called ‘Ostpolitik’, the compromise. But you cannot compromise: they want complete surrender – that’s Communism.”

Zen believes that Francis’ gentle approach to the CCP can also be attributed to his experience of social injustice in South America, where socialists are seen to take the side of the poor, but the crackdown against Catholics has continued since the deal was brokered.

Writing at First Things, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cited the CCP alleged role in the disappearance of an underground priest last year, along with the continued persecution of other Christians, Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong devotees, and other religious believers.

“The State Department’s 2019 annual report on religious freedom provides an illustrative example in the story of Father Paul Zhang Guangjun, who was beaten and “disappeared” for refusing to join the CCP-run Patriotic Catholic Association. Sadly, his experience is not unique. Communist authorities continue to shutter churches, spy on and harass the faithful, and insist that the Party is the ultimate authority in religious affairs,” Pompeo said.

Secretary Pompeo will travel to Rome this week to meet Cardinal Parolin, with a request to also meet Pope Francis reportedly declined by the Vatican. His intention is clear however, to make a last ditch attempt to spare the Vatican the infamy of cozying up to a government whose track record on human rights speaks for itself.

“If the Chinese Communist Party manages to bring the Catholic Church and other religious communities to heel, regimes that disdain human rights will be emboldened, and the cost of resisting tyranny will rise for all brave religious believers who honor God above the autocrat of the day,” Pompeo concluded.

There are over 3 million underground Catholics who have resisted joining the 6 million members of the Patriotic church, and, with their fate hanging in the balance, matters in Rome are sure to impact on the credibility of both Pope Francis and the Vatican for years to come.