Vicious persecution of faithful Chinese Christians who shun state-run “churches” has always been a problem under the communist dictatorship ruling mainland China. But in recent months it has become an even more serious tragedy as believers are terrorized and religious leaders are tortured at increasingly alarming rates. The world, meanwhile, is not doing enough to stop it, according to activists working to expose the abuse.
A renewed sense of paranoia swept over the tyrants in Beijing last year. Following recent developments in the Middle East — the so-called “Arab Spring” has already toppled several long-ruling dictatorships — a re-invigorated crackdown on Christians has observers around the world up in arms. Perhaps fearful of the regime’s growing clout, however, governments worldwide barely dare to mention it. And activists in China know very well what could happen to them and their families if they speak out.
According to the China Aid Association, a Christian non-profit organization that monitors and exposes the Chinese regime’s persecution, the situation is bad and getting worse — fast. In testimony before the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee late last year, China Aid President Bob Fu said the deterioration of the rule of law and freedom of religion in China had reached its lowest point in almost two decades, since the government ended its “official” policy of eradicating religion.
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“Religious groups will either bend to the Party’s demands or be broken by its force,” Fu told the Committee, urging U.S. policy makers to put pressure on the regime as the persecution intensifies. “China’s concept of religious freedom is in fact nothing more than the freedom to follow the Communist Party.”
Of course, the regime does claim to tolerate freedom of “belief,” pointing to its state-controlled churches as proof. But the reality on the ground is far different, as the countless Christian victims of torture and false imprisonment can attest. Consider: To mark the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party’s founding, the regime’s churches were ordered to participate in concerts singing praises to their totalitarian-minded rulers. Those who refused to submit to Beijing were punished severely.
According to experts, the communist-run churches teach their flocks that they must love their government and their rulers above all — God is something of a secondary concern. “Christians find that problematic,” China Aid Los Angeles office Director E. Perez Romero tells Crisis. “Jesus is the head of the Church — not the Chinese Communist Party.” On top of that, parents are not even allowed to take their children to Mass.
Reliable estimates find that there are between 75 million and 150 million Christians worshipping in “illegal” churches within China — likely far greater than the 70 million or so official Communist Party members. “That’s pretty intimidating for the Chinese Communist Party,” says Romero. “The Church seems to be growing while the Communist Party seems to be dying.”
The spectacular growth of Christianity in the face of such dire circumstances, among other developments, has contributed to an explosion of what Romero and others call the “One Party Paranoia” of communist officials. The regime, for example, uses vague laws referring to “social harmony” and “state security” to trump up charges against Christians and dissidents of all varieties. Sometimes their families are targeted, too. And it is only getting worse.
“Ever since the Arab Spring, the Chinese government has cracked down on what they would consider all trouble makers,” Romero says, citing Christians, Falun Gong practitioners, Tibetan Buddhists, political activists and others. “The last thing they want is a ‘Jasmine Revolution’ happening in China. As a result of that, their persecution — which was already at a terrible state — has gotten even worse.”
Catholics are the Primary Target
The Roman Catholic Church in China has been persecuted by the Chinese communists for some six decades — essentially since the nation fell to communism in 1949. As faithful Marxists, Beijing’s despots perceived any allegiance to God or the Church as a threat to their domination, and they acted accordingly. So much of the Church was forced to go underground.
Incredibly, the vicious persecution of Catholics continues to this day — even in a supposed era of universal human rights for all. The regime, of course, claims that being a “Catholic” in China is fine, just so long as one is a member of the communist government-controlled “Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.”
“The Catholic Church in China continues to struggle against state domination and persecution, even as it recovers from the bloodier period of mass annihilation of the Cultural Revolution,” explains Director Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. “The fundamental crisis is the government’s insistence on controlling the Catholic Church through a framework of oversight structures and strangling regulations, and by banning such church teachings as the right to life. Such controls extend to the essential issue of appointing bishops without Vatican approval.”
The problem for Catholics, among others, is that the regime’s Association insists on independence from the Vatican and complete allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party. As New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan explained last year while seeking prayers for China, any “Catholic” Church that rejects the pope is a contradiction in terms.
In 2007, an agreement was struck between the regime and the Vatican that would have allowed the Holy See to approve and ordain bishops selected by the government-controlled Patriotic Association. But in recent years the regime ordained bishops without the Vatican’s approval anyway — even forcing the participation of bishops loyal to Rome, Shea told Crisis. Bishops who refused to cooperate have been arrested, tortured, sent away to labor camps, and worse. A number of Chinese clergy and laity have suffered martyrdom. Pope Benedict XVI and bishops around the world protested the outrage, but to no avail.
“As universal Pastor of the Church, I wish to manifest sincere gratitude to the Lord for the deeply-felt witness of faithfulness offered by the Chinese Catholic community in truly difficult circumstances,” Pope Benedict XVI wrote to the Church in China in a 2007 letter. “At the same time, I sense the urgent need, as my deep and compelling duty and as an expression of my paternal love, to confirm the faith of Chinese Catholics and favour their unity with the means proper to the Church.”
While the situation may appear calm on the surface — the above-ground “Patriotic” church is erecting buildings, evangelizing, growing and even openly running charitable operations — all is not truly well. “Americans should pray for the Chinese Church, for the ability of the Catholic Church there to exist in communion with Rome and for basic human rights for its underground bishops and priests, especially those now languishing in detention,” says Shea.
Much of the repression goes on behind the scenes now, as the regime purports to allow the practice of Catholicism while seeking to control it. And there are more than a few tragic examples of the persecution. According to Shea, Church sources had just informed her that five underground priests in the diocese of Suiyuan were detained by authorities in Inner Mongolia. No charges were specified.
And arresting Church figures is hardly a new phenomenon. Two prominent leaders of the Catholic underground Church in China, Bishop Sue Zhiming and Bishop Shi Enxiang, were “disappeared” by the regime more than ten years ago. Communist officials continue to falsely claim that they do not know what happened to them. But their supporters around the world — while worried about what brutal torture they may be enduring — have not given up hope. Dozens of underground Catholic priests continue to languish in the regime’s dungeons as well.
“We need to pray, pray, and pray,” says Joseph Kung, a relative of the late persecuted Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei and the President of the Cardinal Kung Foundation, a U.S.-based organization that works to support the persecuted underground Church in China and expose the abuse. “It is very much ongoing and getting worse,” he told Crisis.
Rome, of course, has repeatedly tried to reach out to the Chinese regime and continues to do so. But so far little serious progress has been made. Much of the true Church loyal to Rome remains underground as the regime’s bishops — many of whom are actually secretly working with the Holy See — manage the government-sanctioned Church. Unfortunately, however, the Patriotic church is often run in ways that are contradictory to Catholic doctrine. If it took a firm stand, the government would almost certainly seek to quash it once and for all.
All Christians Are Threatened
Government-run Protestant churches are controlled by the “Three-self Patriotic Movement” and the “China Christian Council.” And like the underground Catholic Church in China, the vast networks of “illegal” house churches they have established across the country are increasingly being brutally suppressed by the regime.
Prior to the most recent crackdown, many house churches had found a little bit of breathing room– especially because local officials saw how much good they did in their communities. While local authorities in some areas looked the other way, more than a few congregations even managed to acquire property and construct modest church buildings.
But that might be coming to an end. Last year was a particularly terrible time for members of the Shouwang Church in Beijing, one of China’s largest house churches. Congregants, however, led by their brave senior Pastor Jin Tianming, have remained defiant in the face of adversity and persecution.
“The devil Satan has taken advantage of the authority God has granted to the national government and is seeking to destroy God’s church,” Pastor Tianming wrote in a letter to parishioners urging them to gather for the planned Easter celebration last year. “His devil’s claws have finally been revealed. Satan get thee behind me!”
On Easter Sunday, dozens of parishioners, having been warned by officials not to celebrate the feast day, gathered anyway. Almost half of the church’s faithful and even the pastor had already been placed on house arrest to prevent the celebration. But that did not stop the Christians from coming out.
When they arrived for services, police were already waiting. The parishioners were arrested en-masse and stuffed onto buses by the regime, singing hymns as they awaited their fate at the hands of the dictatorship’s functionaries. At Christmas, the church faced similar persecution.
The government, as usual, responded to global criticism of the crackdown by downplaying the significance of the operation, saying merely that the church had no “legal basis” to exist. Across China, house churches are increasingly being suppressed, harassed, threatened and coerced. And experts don’t see the situation improving on its own — especially as Christianity continues to grow.
Dissidents Face More Abuse
Christians are hardly alone in their victimization — the increasingly paranoid communist regime has plenty of other religious and political targets. The Muslim Uyghur community, Buddhist monks, and countless others are vigorously pursued and oppressed by the nation’s communist rulers as well.
Critics of the dictatorship and advocates of various causes (human rights, Taiwan’s continued independence, freedom for Tibet, ethnic autonomy) all are also routinely targeted. Christians who vocally stand up for human rights — people such as Gao Zhisheng, Fan Yafeng, Jian Tianyong and Tang Jingling — are said to be near the top of the regime’s list of perceived enemies.
Even regular patriotic Chinese citizens routinely face moral outrages. China’s brutal “one-child policy,” for example, is often used to force women to have abortions. And the Internet, as many Westerners know, is tightly monitored and controlled.
But practitioners of the spiritual discipline Falun Gong are among the dictatorship’s most ruthlessly persecuted victims, undergoing torture, “re-education,” arbitrary detainment, and worse. As experts and investigators have documented extensively, Falun Gong prisoners often have their organs harvested by the regime to sell on the black market.
And even abroad, enemies of the regime are not completely safe. The Chinese government operates the single largest intelligence-gathering apparatus in the world. Espionage and intimidation by regime functionaries — often under diplomatic cover — is frequently reported by activists worldwide. Even the U.S. Congress has called on China to cease its illegal harassment and spying campaigns within America.
There Are Signs of Hope
Of course, China is hardly the only nation where Christians and Catholics are persecuted by government. According to a study released last year by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, believers in Christ face some form of systematic harassment or persecution in 130 nations — about two thirds of the countries on Earth.
Still, the Chinese government is the biggest single oppressor of Christians in the world, and it sees itself as an up-and-coming global super power. And while human rights groups worldwide recognize the regime as one of the worst dictatorships in terms of gross violations of liberty and fundamental human dignity, its growing economic power has many Western leaders intimidated.
Despite what China Aid’s Romero describes as the Chinese regime’s “incredible propaganda machinery,” awareness of the dictatorship’s behavior is growing around the world. And that, experts say, is the key to ending the persecution. “Once the public discovers this, there is a passion that is aroused,” Romero says.
Sources report that publicizing the crimes of the regime can have a huge effect on Beijing, which strives to be seen in a positive light. Among the best opportunities to pressure the dictatorship are official state visits by Chinese officials. China’s “Vice-President” Xi Jinping is actually in the U.S. right now to meet with President Obama on February 14. “Citizens can make their voices heard more directly during this trip, in the media or even in prayer vigils and peaceful protests,” says Shea with the Center for Religious Freedom.
But while Beijing does respond to international pressure, it will take a lot more attention and a much louder global outcry to finally end the abuses once and for all. In the meantime, the persecuted churches in China and their allies around the world ask that Christians all over the globe continue to pray.