Last November, Pope Francis, for the first time, called China’s Muslim Uighurs a “persecuted” people, something human rights activists have been urging him to do for years. However, during his solemn Urbi et Orbi Easter blessing on Easter Sunday, Francis snubbed the Uighurs as he carefully omitted any reference to those suffering human rights abuses under China’s Communist regime when he named an array of countries, such as Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Nigeria, and Tigray where people are plagued by violence and conflict.
All things being equal, there is one group whose suffering the Argentinian pope has yet to acknowledge—the Chinese Christians, whose plight is getting worse by the day.
It is incredible that the most influential voice for Christians in the world has been silent on the ever-growing Christian persecutions in Communist China.
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As reported on Holy Thursday by Radio Free Asia, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials are detaining Christians in secretive and mobile “transformation” facilities to make them renounce their faith. Brainwashing methods include routine beatings, indoctrination, and solitary confinement designed to induce self-harm.
Christianity is legal in China, provided the faithful submit to the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, founded in 1957, which was recognized by the Vatican in a 2018 provisional agreement that was renewed in 2020. Accordingly, Chinese officials name or appoint bishops for its state church; the Bishop of Rome approves thereafter. The CCP also runs one for Protestants, the Three-Self Church.
Christian Demographic in China
Most Chinese Christians reject both state-run institutions, since they are suspected to be infiltrated with Communist Party members, especially since the “state” clergy are required to use their platforms to advance the regime’s agenda. As an alternative, though illegal, many Chinese Christians choose what is referred to as “house churches” where small groups get together to pray and study the Bible in private homes. Beijing officially estimates China is home to about 40 million Christians. Counting “house church” Christians, however, independent groups believe the number is closer to 100 million people, which is more than the total membership of the CCP itself.
The Council on Foreign Relations calculates that China is on track to have the world’s largest population of Christians by 2030, with a projection of 247 million. A Pew research study estimates, that as of 2010, China is home to approximately between 93 to 115 million Protestants; Catholics number about 12 million, though it is unclear exactly how many of them are part of the “Underground Church” that exists parallel to the state-sanctioned one. While these figures only amount to five percent of China’s population, among the 10 countries with the largest Christian population, China ranks seventh.
Such demographics are alarming to the Chinese government because, according to The New York Times Beijing correspondent, Javier C. Hernández, Christianity “promotes Western values and ideals like human rights that conflict with the aims of China’s authoritarian government and Mr. Xi’s embrace of traditional Chinese culture and Confucian teachings that emphasize obedience and order.” This is a reason why the CCP reportedly enforces “tight controls” over its citizens’ religious practices. Underground “house churches,” which do not ascribe to the CCP-approved version of Christianity, are often raided by police and religious-bureau officials.
A member of a Christian “house church” in the southwestern province of Sichuan, who asked to be identified by the pseudonym Li Yuese, said he was held in a facility run by the CCP’s United Front Work Department, working in tandem with the state security police, for ten months after a raid on his church in 2018. The United Front Work Department, which reports directly to the Central Committee of the CCP, “gathers intelligence on, manages relations with, and attempts to influence elite individuals and organizations inside and outside China.”
Li mentioned that most of his fellow inmates, like himself, were people who had been released on bail during criminal detention for taking part in church-related activities. Since they had not committed any action that could trigger criminal prosecution, they were arrested by police and sent to the “transformation” facilities instead—the parallel of the “reeducation” (concentration) camps in which Uighur Muslims are detained in the north-western Chinese region of Xinjiang where they, aside from torture, are forced to endure inhuman labor and undergo forced sterilization procedures.
“They were using brainwashing methods,” Li said, “on those of us who were on bail from the detention center. It was in a secret location, in a basement. They use really underhand methods. They threaten, insult and intimidate you. These were United Front officials, men, women, sometimes unidentified, usually in plain clothes. The police turn a blind eye to this…. There were no windows, no ventilation and no time allowed outside. I was given just two meals a day, which were brought to the room by a designated person. I couldn’t sleep; after you’ve been in there a week, death starts to look better than staying there. I bashed myself against the wall to self-harm.”
Persecution of Christians in China ranges from milder tactics, such as offering poor Christians food or other financial incentives to replace crosses in their homes with Communist iconography, to extreme torture and human rights atrocities inflicted on Christians in prison.
According to a report from the human rights magazine Bitter Winter, a self-professed Christian who is a member of the Church of Almighty God—a banned Christian sect in the country— anonymously described the torture tactics she had to endure, such as being made to stand for 18 hours a day for 14 consecutive days, during which the guard prohibited her from going to the toilet and ordered her to have meals while standing there. As she was given little food, she was always starved.
“On the fourth day when I was standing at attention, my feet became numb, feeling like lead. When I went to the toilet at night, I had to move slowly with my hands supporting my knees. The backs of my feet and my legs were all black,” she said. “If I stayed in the toilet over the three minutes they set, the prisoners would shout to urge me, and pour cold water over my body. As they poured water on me more than once, my shoes were always wet, making my feet swollen even more, so that I had difficulties in putting my feet into my shoes. My hands also began to be swollen and numb. I was sleepy and hungry, dazed and flustered.”
“Nine days later, as I was not allowed to excrete in time, my stomach was bloated in pain, so that I had no appetite, and could not sleep well at night,” the woman said, recalling that because she stood for a long time, her hands and feet were terribly swollen. She had difficulty in breathing, but the prisoners who surveilled and controlled her still punished her by letting her stand until midnight.
Why is the Vatican Silent?
The 89-year-old Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, described the entire affair as “the most cruel thing” the Vatican has done concerning the Catholic Church in China, and “absolutely against the doctrine of the Church, because it encourages people to be part of a schismatic Church.”
The Vatican rebuked Zen’s criticism of how the Pope has been handling the aforementioned situation—last year, Zen requested to meet with Francis, but the Pope was “very busy” and could not receive him.
This leads one to wonder, why has the Vatican been silent on this?
In 2018, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China reported that religious persecution had already been on the rise—local Chinese authorities have demolished churches, removed crosses in lieu of Communist symbols, and continued to detain clergy who refuse to submit to the state-run church. This was met with silence.
It goes without saying that the Holy See wants to establish formal diplomatic ties with Communist China, and the Pope does not want to pass up such an historic opportunity. But at what price, if full relations are established?
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