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Status of Religious Freedom in China
President, China Aid
As is widely known, mainland China, under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, is the largest atheist country in the world. That being said, Clause 1 of Article 36 of the Chinese Constitution states: “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China have freedom of religious belief.” However, the truth of the matter is Chinese citizens have not experienced religious freedom in the past 60 or more years under the rule of the Chinese Communist government.
In fact, since Chinese Communists seized power in 1949, they have openly regarded religion as an “opiate of the people.” In response to criticism from the international community, the Chinese Communist government has created a façade of religious freedom through both domestic and international propaganda campaigns. The Chinese Communist government regards religious organizations as antagonistic to state control and therefore targets religious worshippers for the so-called “socialist re-education.” The Chinese Communist government has closed the majority of religious sites, discharged religious clergymen, confiscated church property, and forced religious adherents to participate in re-education sessions and physical labor and all under the guise of “socialist transformation.” Members of the Chinese Communist Party have even posed as religious worshippers to infiltrate religious circles where they foster government puppets and found religious organizations completely under the control of the Chinese Communist Party.
According to data compiled by the Chinese Communist government in the1950s, 8,840 Christian clergymen in mainland China were killed and 39,200 sent to labor camps after they were convicted as “evil despot land owners.” An additional 2,450 clergymen were killed and 24,800 sent to labor camps to be “reformed” after being convicted as “counter-revolutionaries.” During the same period, Buddhists and Muslims suffered similar levels of persecution. In addition to the fact that the majority of temples and mosques were closed, Chinese local government actors at various locations forced monks and nuns to resume secular life and in some cases even marry. In other cases, the Chinese government even forced Muslims to eat pork. In the early 1960s, Tibet was forced to adopt the Chinese Communist policy of “retaining only one temple in each county.” As a result, out of the 2,600 temples in Tibet, only 70 remained after approximately 97% of the temples were destroyed. In response to Mao Zedong’s order that “Lamas must go home,” 110,000 monks and nuns married and resumed secular life.
During the Cultural Revolution, the majority of religions in China were completely destroyed by Chinese Communism and the persecution of religious worshippers reached an alarming level. As China entered the 1980s, the Chinese Communist government adopted a policy of reform and its control over religion was slightly eased, allowing for five major religions to exist to a limited extent. However, the Chinese Communist government strictly enforced control over the five officially sanctioned religions. The result being Buddhist and Taoist temples have degenerated into government controlled tourist venues and the government sanctioned “Three-Self” churches have compromised their faith to principles of Communist Party nationalism. Tibetan Buddhism and Islam also continue to endure religious persecution. In the past few years, over 130 Tibetan Buddhists have immolated themselves in protest against the so-called religious freedom policies of the Chinese Communist Party, and all resistance to religious persecution by Muslim communities has been met with brutal violence by the Chinese government.
There is not enough time today to describe in detail the status of religious persecution in China. However, as a former pastor of a house church in Beijing and as the founder and President of China Aid, I have both direct experience and reliable information on the status of Christianity in China and can testify on the ongoing persecution of the house church movement in China.
In July 1950, Wu Yaozong and other Chinese Christians being pressured and directed by Chinese government authorities jointly issued the “Three-Self Declaration” and launched the “Three-Self Patriotic Movement” (TSPM), which called on Chinese churches to follow the principles of “self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation.” As a result, the Chinese government demanded that religious organizations and venues be registered through government agencies and that Christian and Catholic parishioners must attend a TSPM church, thus accepting the leadership of the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA). In response, many Chinese citizens have refused to adhere to these stipulations believing the Chinese government has interfered in their right to religious freedom, and are thus unwilling to join the TSPM churches. As a result, religious activities are being held underground and typically in Christian residences commonly referred to as “house churches” or “underground churches.” There have been estimates that the number of house church members has reached to over 50 million, far exceeding the number of worshippers in TSPM churches.
In response, the Chinese government in the 1950s adopted a policy of closing house churches and persecuting its members and leaders, including sentencing such church leaders as Pastor Wang Mingdao, Pastor “Watchman” Nee, Pastor Allan Yuan, and Pastor Samuel Lamb, who refused to join the TSPM churches. In many of these cases, house church pastors died as martyrs. In the 1980s and 90s, most pastors and elders of house churches in various provinces that reached a certain number of members were framed and falsely imprisoned on criminal charges.
In the 2000s urban churches such as the Shouwang Church of Beijing, Wanbang Missionary Church of Shanghai, and Early Rain Reformed Church in Chengdu experienced rapid growth. As the church experienced growth and as various social crises emerged, the Chinese Communist regime entered into a “stage of maintaining stability through violence.” That is, the government relied on the police, not the rule of law, to maintain its political power and social stability. As a result, the house church movement began to suffer systematic and continuous persecution.
For example, Chinese police forced a landlord to stop leasing property utilized by the Shouwang Church of Beijing, the largest house church in Beijing with over 1000 members. As a result, members of the Shouwang Church were forced to hold their Sunday service outdoors on November 1, 2009. To find a resolution, the Shouwang Church attempted to register their church with the government in an effort to demonstrate the legitimacy of their church, and they also raised funding to purchase a new location for the their church. Unfortunately, the government refused to allow the Shouwang Church to register, thus refusing to recognize the legitimate status of their house church, and under the pressure of the police, the real estate company refused to honor their contract on the house. As a result, since April 10, 2011 the members of the Shouwang Church have held their worship services at outdoor public venues, which the Chinese Communist Party regards as an illegal assembly. Unfortunately, during the past four years, members of the Shouwang Church have been detained on a weekly basis resulting in over three thousand individual detentions for simply safeguarding their right to freely worship. The pastor of Shouwang Church, Jin Tianming, has been under house arrest since April 10, 2011.
In recent years, Chinese government authorities have detained and arrested a large number of house church pastors and missionaries on criminal charges such as “illegal business operation” and “disrupting the public order.” According to conservative estimates on religious persecution, there were 143 cases related to Christian persecution in China with a total of 1,470 Christians being detained and 7,424 being persecuted for their faith in 2013. The Chinese government also continues to confiscate house churches property, religious books and materials and impose fines.
In the past few years, the Chinese government began persecuting house churches under the pretext of combating “evil cults,” labeling 14 religious communities as evil cults, including the “Eastern Lightning,” and the “Christian Local Church.” In addition, the Chinese government began strictly banning church members and leaders from preaching in universities and colleges, and frequently interfering in church Sunday schools, summer camps, and Christian schools.
In 2013, the Chinese government began harassing and persecuting its own state-sanctioned TSPM churches. For example, on April 28, 2013, the Wenzhou municipal government dispatched a large number of police to demolish the Sanjiang Church of Wenzhou, which was a government-sanctioned church subordinate to the Chinese government’s TSPM system. The construction of the Sanjiang Church cost over 30 million Yuan, which was raised among its members. To prevent the government from demolishing the church, local Christians and Christians from other areas gathered in the church day and night for over a month. Unfortunately, the Sanjiang Church was eventually completely destroyed by Chinese government authorities.
In 2014, the Nanle TSPM Church in Henan province entered into a legal dispute with the government over church property. As a result, its pastor Zhang Shaojie and 23 other key members and leaders of the church were arrested. At present, Pastor Zhang and one of the 23 church leaders have been sentenced to prison and the church has been closed by force.
In 2014, the Zhejiang government of the Chinese Communist Party began to demolish “church buildings that violated building codes” and to dismantle church crosses throughout the province. By the end of 2014, over 416 crosses had been forcibly removed and dozens of churches had been demolished in Zhejiang province. Unfortunately, the government’s campaign of removing the crosses of TSPM churches and other persecution continues to spread to other provinces. In fact, it can easily be argued that 2014 was the worst year since the end of the Cultural Revolution in which the Chinese Communist government has severely suppressed the TSPM churches.
In light of these facts, we can say with confidence that there has never been true religious freedom in China since 1949. Noting that the Chinese Communist Party has in recent years tightened their control on the TSPM churches and have made considerable efforts to destroy the house church movement, the future for religious freedom in China appears extremely bleak.
Thus, I continue to pray to God to bless China with religious freedom and other universal rights.