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A musical gesture of accommodation

The Baltimore Sun

SHANGHAI, China -- When the China Philharmonic Orchestra performs for Pope Benedict XVI this week, it will start with Mozart's Requiem and end with a popular Chinese folk song, "Jasmine Flower."

The concert on Wednesday is a historic gesture that might help improve relations between the Vatican and Beijing, a major goal for this pope as he seeks to expand freedoms for Roman Catholics in China.

The Beijing-based orchestra, along with the Shanghai Opera House Chorus, will perform for the pope at Paul VI Audience Hall, the Vatican's principal auditorium.

While the orchestra played in Rome in 2004, this will be its first appearance at the Vatican.

"I certainly feel very excited," China Philharmonic's music director, Long Yu, said in a telephone interview from Beijing.

Vatican Radio, which first reported the concert, noted that "music is confirming its role as a language and most precious medium for dialogue among peoples and cultures."

Vatican sources said the initiative for the concert came from the Chinese.

In February, the New York Philharmonic gave an unprecedented performance in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, though the reclusive nation's leader, Kim Jong Il, did not attend.

It wasn't clear how much this week's concert will help the Vatican and Beijing move toward reconciliation.But Pope Benedict has made the improvement of relations with China a priority of his papacy, hoping to secure greater freedom for Chinese Catholics.

At the very least, the China Philharmonic's debut at the Vatican, part of a three-city European tour, would carry significant symbolism for the millions of Catholics in China who are split between official and underground churches.

Chinese Catholics are allowed to worship only at state-backed churches, and many worshiping at clandestine sites and professing loyalty to the pope have been persecuted.

The Chinese orchestra is under the control of the officially atheist central government, which has had icy relations with the Vatican since the breakdown of diplomatic ties two years after the 1949 Communist takeover.

While Beijing has recognized the pope as the Roman Catholic Church's spiritual leader, it has repeatedly clashed with Rome over the authority to appoint priests and bishops in China.

Since his election as pope three years ago, Pope Benedict has sought "constructive" dialogue with Beijing.

Yet he has also taken steps that undoubtedly irritated the Chinese government. The first batch of bishops that Pope Benedict elevated to cardinal included the outspoken archbishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Zen. The pope has also condemned the "suffering" of the people of Tibet.

At the same time, the Vatican and Beijing have quietly agreed on the appointment of some Chinese bishops.

"If it's true that the China Philharmonic is performing at the Vatican, it is a great example that the two sides are moving forward through an exchange of culture and arts," said Liu Bainian, vice chairman of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which represents more than 5.6 million Catholics.

Don Lee writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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