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China Keeps a Tight Fist on Christianity

Pursues Economic Liberalism Along With Ideological Rigidity

HONG KONG, NOV. 22, 2003 (Zenit) - The dynamism and increasing openness of China's economy is well known. Recognizing that more freedom leads to greater economic growth, China's rulers have been loosening their controls on economic activity. But when it comes to other freedoms, particularly religious liberty, the rulers continue to take a hard-line approach.

According to the U.S.-based Cardinal Kung Foundation, every one of the underground Catholic Church bishops is either in jail, under house arrest, under strict surveillance, or in hiding. Bishop Su Zhimin of Baoding, in Hebei province, was arrested in 1997, and resurfaced only in the past week. He was spotted, still under custody, at a hospital seeking treatment. Bishop An Shuxin of Baoding was arrested in March 1996. Bishop Han Dingxiang of Yong Nian, Hebei, was arrested in December 1999. Bishop Shi Enxiang of Yixian, Hebei, was arrested in April 13, 2001. They are all now in jail. Numerous priests and seminarians have also been arrested in recent years.

Repression by Chinese authorities has intensified in recent months. On July 7, Reuters reported that five members of the underground Catholic clergy were arrested in northern China while trying to visit a priest recently released from a labor camp. Fathers Kang Fuliang, Chen Guozhen, Pang Guangzhao and Joseph Yin and deacon Wang Lijun were arrested in Baoding on July 1. Another priest, Lu Xiaozhou, was arrested in the eastern city of Wenzhou in Zhejiang province on June 16 as he was preparing to perform the sacrament of anointing of the sick.

A more widespread campaign was detailed in a June 29 article by the Spanish daily El Mundo. The newspaper reported that in Wenzhou, on China's eastern coast, authorities declared that they had identified 4,800 centers dedicated to promoting "feudal superstition." All the Christian churches were marked with signs in red paint, earmarking them for destruction. Authorities proclaimed that their campaign led to the destruction, often using dynamite, of more than 3,000 churches.

China's leaders see in organized religion, and in particular Christian groups, the last holdout to their absolute domination, reported the newspaper. Although the country's Constitution in theory guarantees the freedom to practice a number of religious creeds, in practice Communist Party authorities only allow leeway to those groups that accept its domination.

On Sept. 12 the religious rights organization Compass Direct reported that officers of China's Public Security Bureau arrested 170 Christians at a rural house church meeting in Nanyang, in Henan province, on Sept. 2. The officials singled out 14 key religious leaders for detention, letting the others free after fingerprinting and warning them.

Authorities have unleashed a new wave of persecution in recent weeks. On Oct. 20 the Associated Press reported that an activist for an unofficial Christian church was detained after investigating the destruction of churches by authorities in eastern China. Liu Fenggang, 43, was detained Oct. 13 in the city of Hangzhou while visiting with leaders of the destroyed churches who had just been released from detention. According to the report, at least 10 Christian churches since July have been torn down by authorities in the Hangzhou area as "illegal religious venues."

On Oct. 27 the Cardinal Kung Foundation reported that a dozen underground Catholic priests and seminarians who were attending a religious retreat Oct. 20 at Gaocheng County, Hebei, were arrested. The arrests followed the destruction of a Catholic church in Hebei by the Chinese government on June 21. The church had been completed only two weeks before and served 150 parishioners, mostly recent converts.

On Nov. 10 the London daily Times reported that authorities in the Zhejiang province outside Shanghai have shut down more than 400 Buddhist temples and Christian churches in a renewed attempt to stamp out underground religious activity.

The action was centered on Deqing County, where 392 temples and 10 churches were closed, according to the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy. Of these, four churches and 24 temples were destroyed, while 92 temples were transformed into entertainment centers.

The Times reported that Zhejiang province is the ancestral home of a large part of the Chinese-American community. The government fears that funds collected in Chinese-American churches in the United States are helping to finance a rapid expansion of underground churches in the region.

"Theological reconstruction"

But China's efforts are not limited to thwarting unauthorized religious activity. The long-term goal is to influence the theological orientation of believers so they become aligned with the country's rulers.

This ideological dimension was explained in a document published last Monday by the human rights organization International Christian Concern. The Washington, D.C.-based group published some notes based on talks given by representatives of the officially recognized Protestant "Three Self Patriotic Church."

Arguing the need for a "theological reconstruction," the Three Self Patriotic Church officials alleged that "Christians are told that their citizenship is in heaven, and therefore are urged to refuse the supervision of the authorities and to disobey laws and regulations." Hence, "this has led some churches and innocent believers to oppose the government, to oppose social development and nation building." According to the notes, theological ideas that are "anti-material, anti-rational, anti-social and anti-humanist" must be "abandoned."

The implications of the theological position being advocated by Chinese authorities were spelled out recently by a Bishop Ding. He is the most influential leader of the state-controlled Three Self Patriotic Church, according to a Nov. 14 news release by the rights group Compass Direct.

In September a magazine in Tianfeng published the text of a lecture he gave at the East China Theological Seminary in Shanghai, titled "Theological Construction Enters a New Stage." Ding insisted that the Christian beliefs brought to China by the 19th-century missionaries intimidate people. "We Chinese Christians must unite with all the people of China and not be disunited with other people because they do not believe," he stated. "We must remold Chinese Christianity to become a Christianity which ... will be welcomed by the Chinese Communist Party and is compatible with socialism."

Economic pressure

Westerners who do business in China should insist on greater religious freedom for the country's citizens, said Hong Kong's Bishop Joseph Zen in an interview with the Italian Catholic daily Avvenire published Sept. 20.

Interviewed during a visit in Italy, Bishop Zen added he feared that China could someday impose on Hong Kong the same religious repression now being carried out on the mainland. In Hong Kong the Church educates 25% of students in its 300 schools, and Bishop Zen said he also feared authorities may take control of these institutions.

Bishop Zen observed that many thought China's openness on economic matters would, in the long run, lead to greater political freedom. This hope has only been partially fulfilled, he said, and while some progress has been made on religious matters nothing essential has changed. It's fine to do business with China, he said, but he hopes that this will also lead to interest in human rights matters.

As the country busily remodels its capital Beijing to present a good image during the 2008 Olympic Games, China-observers can only hope that the world's largest nation gets its religious-rights record in order too.

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