Nuns walk as the Vatican Christmas tree coming from Poland is lifted up by a crane in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican November 23, 2017. REUTERS/Max Rossi Image Credit: REUTERS

‘Travel agencies are required to cancel any tours that include the Vatican or St Peter’s Basilica in the itinerary...” These words are part of a new, bluntly-worded directive issued by China’s National Tourism Administration. The Chinese-language outlet of Radio Free Asia (RFA) reports that the new restriction is justified: “Because China has no diplomatic relation with the country.”

Most of China’s travel agencies are state-run, and the authorities allow them to organise tours to 127 countries and regions in the world, excluding the 20 countries that still have official ties with Taiwan. However, until recently, Beijing had allowed Chinese tourists to visit the Holy See, the enclave that usually makes up an integral part of any trip to Rome.

Though as the report also pointed out, Beijing “never leaves a paper trail” for such interference, the new directive is regarded as a way for China to put pressure on the Vatican to sever its official ties with Taiwan.

Citing an industry source, the RFA reported that the Chinese authorities “frequently order the industry to comply with its political or diplomatic requirements, without being seen to do so publicly. Examples in the past include South Korea, Sweden and Japan”.

Ever since Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s President, took office a year ago, organised Chinese tours to the island state have also dropped sharply, due to Tsai’s refusal to affirm China’s 1992 Consensus, which says “there is only one China”.

It’s not the first time there has been tension between Vatican and Beijing, though.

Since the Communist Party took over China in 1949, it has always held to atheism. Not only are religious believers frequently persecuted, including Catholics, but China also maintains control by ordaining more and more of its own state-designated bishops, without Vatican approval, to meet the needs of a Catholic population that continues to grow nonetheless, the RFA reported.

The papal city-state is the only country in the advanced world to maintain a diplomatic relationship with the Republic of China, the official name for Taiwan, for the very reason of its religious discord with China.

Only a few days ago, local authorities in Jiangxi Province demanded that Protestant farmers remove Christian paintings and writings from their home, and put up the photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping instead. This was in an effort to “convert religious belief to belief in the Party”, the Liberty Times reported.

A party staff was cited as saying that “many villagers regard God as their saviour. But after Communist cadres work on them, they will understand that they shouldn’t rely on Jesus, but to turn to the Party”.

Last July, China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs also told Chinese Communist Party members that they are not allowed to have religious beliefs and “between the party and God or Buddha, you can only choose one”.

— Worldcrunch, 2017/New York Times News Service

Laura Lin is a writer based in Paris.