In an historic move, this week, Pope John Paul II asked the people of China for forgiveness for the errors committed by Catholic Church, and proposed the normalization of relations between Beijing and Rome. The message was addressed to the international congress on the Jesuit missionary Fr Matteo Ricci (1551-1610), which began Wednesday in Rome. The Pope mentioned the disputes over the inculturation of Christianity in China, as well as the support given to the Catholic Church by European powers who were hostile to Beijing. One of the bones of contention with China, is that during the Boxer Rebellion, between 1898 and 1900, many Christians defended the foreign presence in the country. Then, in 1934, the Vatican was one of the first to recognize the state of Manchukuo, controlled by the Japanese. "For all of this, I ask the forgiveness and understanding of those who may have felt hurt in some way by such actions on the part of Christians," the Pope said. "History reminds us of the unfortunate fact that the work of members of the Church in China was not always without error, the bitter fruit of their personal limitations and of the limits of their action," he said. "Moreover, their action was often conditioned by difficult situations connected with complex historical events and conflicting political interests. Nor were theological disputes lacking, which caused bad feelings and created serious difficulties in preaching the Gospel." Fr Ricci, whose process of beatification is under way, was an object of these disputes. His missionary methods sparked much controversy. He dressed like a Chinese and adopted Chinese customs that won him the approval of Chinese intellectuals but the criticism of Church leaders. "In certain periods of modern history, a kind of 'protection' on the part of European political powers not infrequently resulted in limitations on the Church's very freedom of action and had negative repercussions for the Church in China," the Pope said. "This combination of various situations and events placed obstacles in the Church's path and prevented her from fully carrying out -- for the benefit of the Chinese people -- the mission entrusted to her by her founder, Jesus Christ." "I feel deep sadness for these errors and limits of the past, and I regret that in many people these failings may have given the impression of a lack of respect and esteem for the Chinese people on the part of the Catholic Church, making them feel that the Church was motivated by feelings of hostility toward China," he said. The Pope then spoke of the possibility of a new future for Catholicism in China. "Today the Catholic Church seeks no privilege from China and its leaders, but solely the resumption of dialogue in order to build a relationship based upon mutual respect and deeper understanding. Let it be known to China: The Catholic Church has a keen desire to offer, once more, her humble and selfless service for the good of Chinese Catholics and of all the people of the country, " he said Yesterday, Sun Yuxi, spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said that China "has always said that it is prepared to improve its relations with the Vatican." But, he added: "the Vatican must sever its diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and recognize the government of the People's Republic of China as the only legitimate representative of the whole of China, and Taiwan as an inalienable part of Chinese territory." He added that the Vatican could not interfere with China's internal affairs. The Communist government severed diplomatic ties with the Vatican in the 1950s, expelling Catholic missionaries, and forcing Chinese believers to register with the state-approved Patriotic Association, which claims about five million members. There are about another six or seven million Catholics faithful to Rome in China but they are not legally recognised and frequently suffer persecution.
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