Hong Kong Bishop Stephen Chow will embark on his first official visit to China on Monday, but is “unlikely” to meet representatives from the mainland’s “underground” churches, a spokesperson said, amid continuing strains between Beijing and the Vatican over the governance of the country’s Catholics.
Chow will be the first Hong Kong bishop – the head of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong and overseen by the Vatican – to make an official visit to the mainland since 1994.
He will be accompanied by two senior church officials following an invitation from his Beijing counterpart Joseph Li Shan, according to a church statement.
In response to Al Jazeera’s inquiries, a spokesperson at the Hong Kong Catholic diocese’s communications office said Li, who took up the post two years ago, was invited to the mainland in 2022.
But the trip only became possible once Beijing lifted its COVID-19 travel restrictions late last year.
The Hong Kong delegation’s mission is to “promote exchanges and interactions” between churches in mainland China and the worldwide Catholic community, the spokesperson added.
The Vatican has long been at odds with Beijing over the Catholic Church in China, where the Communist Party is wary of any mass organisations over which it has no direct control.
Catholic churches in mainland China must register with and operate under the state-affiliated Catholic Patriotic Association, an organisation overseen by the party’s United Work Front Department and led by Li, that the Vatican does not recognise.
Professor Tobias Brandner, associate director of the Divinity School of Chung Chi College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, described Chow’s trip as overdue”.