Universe Column for March 2002
By David AltonThe British human rights charity, Jubilee Campaign, along with other human rights organisations, has just published a booklet which shouts out two basic truths about Christians in China.
The first is that underground Christians – Catholic and Protestant – vastly outnumber those Christians belonging to the ‘official’ churches. Millions of Chinese Christians prefer to remain in illegal gatherings rather than submit to the invasive monitoring involved in government registration and membership in the party-run “Patriotic” religious organisations.
The second is that the level persecution directed against underground Christians in China is very high. This state-sponsored campaign against “illegal organisations” involves surveillance, interference and police abuses, including torture.
A few years ago I visited the underground church in China. and encountered great heroism and courage. One day, when the bamboo curtain falls, we will be enriched by these accounts of sacrifice and hardship. Marx lampooned religion as “the opium of the masses” but long after discredited Marxist ideology has been snuffed out religious belief will endure. In the short-term, though, the suffering of believers in China is likely to increase.
The Chinese authorities have just passed some draconian sentences upon some underground church leaders and members belonging to the South China Church. Pastor Gong Sheng Liang and two others have been sentenced to death. Two other members have been sentenced to death with a two year reprieve. Others have been given lengthy prison sentences. These are some of the harshest sentences passed against Christians in many years.
One pastor who was interviewed by Christian Solidarity Worldwide said: “Persecution is still severe; many are arrested and fined and beaten, many churches are closed. Persecution is worse… There have been more arrests, especially in north China.”
One of the tactics most regularly employed by the Chinese authorities is to declare underground Christian churches “cults”. This raises the stakes from civil disobedience and invokes the full force of the criminal law, including arbitrary detention, torture, and even capital charges. By labelling a church as a “cult”, the Chinese Government is able to maintain the useful fiction that arrested and jailed believers are not falling foul of restrictive religious laws, but are criminals disrupting public and social order laws. In fact, the only ‘crime’ committed by such Christians is to refuse to participate in Government controlled religions.
Official Government documents make chilling reading. They talk of “banishing, purifying, searching, educating, converting and controlling” Christians and other unregistered groups. Such documents demonstrate that the policy of religious persecution is directed from the highest echelons of the Chinese Government. One of the current architects is Mr Hu Jin-tao, member of the Standing Committee of the Central Political Bureau and Vice Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, a man seen as the likely successor of the President Jiang Zemin.
When speaking recently of the refusal of the Chinese authorities to allow the Holy Father to visit China, Chinese born Cardinal Paul Shan Kuo-his, president of the bishops’ conference of Taiwan, declared that the Chinese regime “don’t want the Holy Father to come because he is so influential in the spiritual sphere in the world. They are afraid of his spiritual power”.
This fear explains the brutal repression of all religious faith in China. Unless the Chinese authorities can exercise direct control over a particular church or religion it is branded as a “cult” and the full force of the criminal law brought to bear on its members. Yet what is most significant about the booklet recently published with the help of the Jubilee Campaign is that, perhaps for the first time, documentary evidence has been obtained that the persecution against underground Christians and others has escalated in recent years. At the same time the international community – with the notable exception of President Bush – seeks to rehabilitate the Chinese regime following the Tianneman Square massacre.
This evidence has emerged partly as a result of the disgust of some members of China’s security services with their own government’s anti-religious policy and practices, and partly as a result of the desperation of suffering Christians who know that they have little left to lose.
There are approximately 60-90 million Christians in China. This makes them the world’s largest persecuted Christian community. The Foreign Office Minister for China recently admitted to me that China’s record on religious freedom “is poor”. We can pray for the persecuted Christians of China and also write to MPs and to the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw asking that they impress upon the Chinese authorities the need to end their barbarous practices. Links to Jubilee Campaign can be made through www.davidalton.com