Global Report: China

Despite strict government control of religion in China, citizens of the world's most populace country continue to flock to Jesus Christ. Even state persecution of some Christian communities in China has not prevented the faithful from gathering and worshipping in secret.

Since the 1980s, restrictions on freedom of religion have lessened somewhat, Kiri Kankhwende of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, tells ChristianWeek.

"However, there are still problems," says the press officer for CSW, a United Kingdom-based Christian non-governmental organization that promotes religious freedom and defends human rights around the world.

The right to freedom of religion, belief or conscience is guaranteed under the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Unfortunately, says Kankhwende, "internationally recognized religious freedom standards are routinely ignored in China."

According to the CSW representative, state persecution of Christians "varies from harassment, humiliation, fines and church closures, to imprisonment, torture, and forced labour."

If detained by security forces, Christians are sometimes made to suffer for their faith.

"When Christians are arrested," says Kankhwende, "they are often beaten, at times leaving them with serious injuries and in need of hospital treatment."

Hong Kong

Hong Kong, which remained under British rule until 1997, enjoys a greater degree of freedom than does mainland China.

"Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China, which operates under a different set of basic laws negotiated prior to the 1997 handover" of the former British colony to Communist China, says Patrick Yu, Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Toronto.

For example, freedom of religion is protected under Hong Kong's basic laws, explains Yu, who was born and raised in Hong Kong.

Yu remains in contact with Anglican Church leaders there.

"I also work with Chinese Christians who have moved to Canada to study or work," he tells ChristianWeek. "Two of them are ordained and working for the Diocese of Toronto, right now."

State regulation of religion

The practice of religion is tightly regulated by Beijing.

Unlike in Hong Kong, which enjoys special legal protections for freedom of religion, separate Protestant denominations are not permitted on mainland China.

"There is a national Catholic Church and a national Protestant Church, which ordains [and] employs clergy, operates seminaries, and regulates church life on the local, provincial, and national level," Yu says.

However, the bishop believes that the role of state officials has "moved from a merely supervisory role to one of cooperation, as well."

When the Communists seized control of China in 1949, says Kankhwende, the new regime established state bodies to oversee religion in China, including Christianity.

To this day, Beijing requires Christians to register with either of the official state-sanctioned churches.

For example, says Kankhwende, "the official Catholic Patriotic Association is the body responsible for Catholicism and does not recognize the status of the Holy See [the Vatican] as head of the church."

By controlling churches, Beijing is violating the basic human rights of Chinese Christians, according to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a non-partisan human rights body established by the United States Congress in 1998. Its mission is to advise the U.S. government on issues of religious liberty around the globe.

"Trying to wedge people into so-called churches that are under the thumb of Chinese authorities is not freedom of religion, but a form of serfdom intended to exact total and unconditional loyalty to whatever whim fancies Beijing," writes Leonard Leo, Chairman of the USCIRF, in an email.

"The Chinese government is trampling fundamental and universal human rights," continues Leo, "when it restricts freedom of religion of those who choose not to affiliate with state-managed and controlled churches."

Bishop Yu acknowledges Christians' "legitimate fear" of government persecution. And that fear causes many Christians to defy the state by not registering with state-sanctioned churches.

"But many of them, especially in the city," adds Yu, "are quite open about it [their faith] and go to both the official church and unofficial gatherings."

Despite the Canadian government's ongoing attempts to forge closer bilateral trade and investment relations with China, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has publicly chided Beijing for oppressing Christians.

In his maiden address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 26, 2011, Baird noted: "Roman Catholic priests and other Christian clergy, and their laity, are driven to worship underground in China."

Christian Solidarity Worldwide confirms that some Christian communities meet in secret.

"Many Catholics, who wish to be loyal to Rome, do not want to worship in the official churches," says Kankhwende. "And as a result, an unofficial Roman Catholic church, sometimes called the 'underground' church [has] sprung up in China."

The CSW representative says that there are also Protestant "house" churches in China. House churches are made up of "those congregations who choose, often for reasons of conscience, not to join the officially recognized churches."

House churches "operate in a legal grey area," says Kankhwende. And they can "face persecution form authorities due to their de facto illegal status."

According to the 2011 annual report issued by the USCIRF, Chinese authorities detained over 500 unregistered Protestants between April 1, 2010 and March 31, 2011.

The commission also states "Dozens of unregistered Catholic clergy remain in detention or home confinement, or have disappeared."

The report concludes that the Communist regime has "stepped up efforts to destroy churches and close 'illegal' meeting points."

Sino-Canadian relations

In the autumn of 2011, a number of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet ministers made official trade-oriented visits to China. And Prime Minister Harper himself is reportedly preparing to visit the People's Republic sometime in the not-too-distant future.

However, Canadian human rights defender and author David Kilgour isn't keen on the idea of a prime ministerial visit to China.

A former federal Liberal cabinet minister in the government of Paul Martin, Kilgour was nominated, along with his co-author David Matas, for a Nobel Prize in 2010, for exposing gross human rights violations perpetrated by the Chinese regime.

In a January 2010 speech to the Rotary Club of Ottawa, Kilgour outlined the Communist regime's attempts to crush religious movements in China, including Christianity. And he warned that "China's [one] party-state must still be engaged with caution."

Kilgour remains highly critical of the Communist regime's terrible human rights record and continues to urge caution when dealing with Beijing.

"It is not appropriate for Prime Minister Harper to visit China now for many reasons, including the appalling human dignity record of the current [Chinese] administration," Kilgour writes in an email.

Saddened by church's image

Bishop Yu says he's saddened by the "image of the 'persecuted' Church in China."

As a youth in Hong Kong, Yu had heard stories of persecution on the mainland.

During his first visit to the mainland in 1992, he says that he made a point of going to "a state-run bookstore to check [out] the section on religion."

Much to his surprise, Yu "saw Bibles on sale, together with Bible dictionaries and Bible storybooks."

When he thinks of the church on the mainland, the persecution of Christians isn't his main concern.

"The first thing that comes to my mind is a young, dedicated theological conservatism, vibrant women with great potential [that] we can learn from," he says.

While acknowledging that persecution does exist in China, Yu says that it has been spun out of proportion, especially in the U.S."

Despite difficult circumstances, Christians continue to do humanitarian work in China.

For example, the Amity foundation, based in Nanjing, is the social outreach wing of the Protestant church in China. Amity runs programs across China, Yu says. These include sustainable rural developments, homes for people with disabilities and senior citizen homes.

In addition, says Yu, Amity prints ten million Bibles per year in China.

However, he claims that the "dominant image of persecution is hurting people on the ground" in China.

"We respond to a persecuted rather than a vibrant church, by withholding help from the official [state-sanctioned] church."

For example, while many people in Europe contribute generously to the Amity Foundation, Yu asserts, "Only a trickle of money comes from North America."

Jerusalem of the East

"The church in China is growing at a phenomenal rate," Yu says.

While it is difficult to accurately estimate the number of Christians in China, Yu believes that there are more than 50 million Christians in mainland China, "many times the number before the revolution."

Official government statistics tend to underestimate the actual size of China's Christian community. And Yu suggests two reasons why that is so.

First, the government doesn't count Christians who are "unregistered" or are members of house churches.

Second, "Church leaders have to be quite astute in not appearing too successful after their very bitter experience in the Cultural Revolution," Yu points out.

"China is a big country," he says, "and it is difficult to validate or refute stories" of persecution of Christians.

The Anglican bishop claims that there is little persecution in China's coastal communities and big cities.

"Wenchow, a high-tech boom town on the coast, is called Jerusalem of the East, because ten percent of the population are Christians."

Shanghai is supposedly another haven for Christians. "The city council of Shanghai added the Bible to its 'recommended reading' list," Yu says.

"In the countryside and in the interior, the situation is quite different."

For example, he says that Christians "may run into deep seated opposition from traditional religious people" as well as from "officials still embedded in an older, more rigorous Communist ideology."

In those less-enlightened regions, Chinese can find themselves persecuted by the state for being followers of Jesus Christ.

"Those arrested have little legal recourse, and punishment in China is severe," Yu concedes.

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About the author

Special to ChristianWeek

Geoffrey P. Johnston is a Canadian rights journalist. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston.