(Beijing – Dec. 7, 2010) In a grave and troubling setback, Chinese authorities last week launched a crackdown directed at Christians who belong to China’s vast network of unregistered house churches, calling a “cult” one of the fastest-growing populations of Christians in the world, according to top-secret information obtained by ChinaAid Association.
The all-powerful Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party launched “Operation Deterrence” on Dec. 1. According to the Politburo’s top-secret instructions, the crackdown on the largest component of the mainland Chinese church is to continue through March 2011, and the party’s Central Committee for Comprehensive Management of Social order, the foot soldiers of China’s security apparatus, have been notified to collect information about house churches throughout the country and turn these reports in to their superiors. A long “blacklist” of church leaders and influential believers reportedly has been drawn up.
Earlier and sketchier reports had described “Operation Deterrence” as a broader crackdown on human rights defenders and activists during which 20 rights defenders were to be arrested and sentenced. The action was timed to coincide with the Dec.10 award ceremony for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.
The latest information, obtained by ChinaAid from more than one reliable source, makes it clear however that the target of the crackdown is more narrowly focused and may be directed solely at China’s vibrant network of house churches and their members.
Recent government actions against Christians, including official harassment of influential house church leaders, the ordination of a Catholic bishop in defiance of the Vatican’s wishes and even the cyberattacks that brought down ChinaAid’s Chinese and English news websites, appear to have been a prelude signaling the advent of the crackdown. Perhaps unbeknownst to China’s atheist Communist leaders, the start of the crackdown coincides with Advent, marked by Christians worldwide as the season leading up to the celebration of the greatest historical event of Christianity: the birth of Jesus Christ, the son of God, to save mankind from sin and eternal damnation.
In recent years, the Beijing regime had stepped back from its previous hostility toward and adamant opposition to the house church movement, leading many Christians in China and overseas to believe that these unregistered congregations could win official sanction without having to join the government-run Three-Self Patriotic Movement, the only Protestant church officially allowed to function in China.
But Operation Deterrence harks back to the previous era of hostilities and often brutal government persecution that had for decades driven unknown hundreds of thousands of believers “underground,” worshipping in secret and fearing for their lives and freedom.
The Politburo directive gave these four reasons for labeling the house churches a “cult”:
1) the house churches advocate and promote the Christianization of China;
2) the house churches seek the unity of all churches in China;
3) the house churches seek the unity of the Chinese church with churches worldwide;
4) the house churches want to have dialogue with the government.
These reasons are specious, and demonstrate the Chinese government’s ignorance of religious issues, because none of the reasons conforms to the accepted definition of a cult. A simple dictionary definition describes a cult as “a religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader.”
A more detailed description of the characteristics of a cult is provided by the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) here http://www.csj.org/infoserv_cult101/checklis.htm. The characteristics include concerted efforts at influence and control, displaying excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader, and mind-altering practices.
The labeling of Chinese house churches as a cult could have serious implications and represents a major step backwards in the thawing of relations in recent years between the Beijing regime and the vast house church network.
Once Chinese authorities have given a person or a group a negative label of any kind, it is almost impossible to do away with that designation. The Beijing regime seldom admits a mistake or reverses its decisions, and even on the rare occasions that it does, negative public sentiment lingers and can dog an individual or group for years, detrimentally impacting a person’s ability to find or keep a job, for instance.
In the case of the Chinese house churches, being labeled a cult could stop dead in its tracks the progress that has been made in recent years toward winning official acknowledgment of their existence, the right to register and operate like any other citizens group in China, and an end to official religious persecution. In the cyclical nature of China’s political life, hardliners who have been sidelined in the recent warmer climate could seize on the “cult” label to re-exert their authority.
That could result in the more practical and immediate—and chilling—possibility that the same measures that have long been used against practitioners of Falungong, which the Beijing regime labeled a cult in late 1999, can now be employed against house church Christians. The Chinese government’s brutal systematic campaign against Falungong since July 1999 has earned it worldwide censure.
According to international human rights observers and the U.S. State Department, Falungong practitioners are among the most harshly persecuted groups in China and they account for as many as half the prisoners in China’s vast re-education-through-labor (laojiao) camps in recent years. They have also been given long prison sentences and even the death penalty simply because of their religious practices, and reports of Falungong practitioners being beaten to death in prison or while in other forms of detention have been common. The specter of similar treatment now hangs over house church Christians as a result of the “cult” label.
Beijing authorities very effectively turned the tide of public opinion against the non-violent, meditating Falungong practitioners by using the same re-labeling tactic they are now adopting with the house church Christians. Originally regarded as an apolitical qigong exercise group, Falungong was reclassified by the government as “an evil cult,” “a sect” and “superstition,” and a subsequent all-out government media campaign eroded any public opposition to the government’s crackdown on Falungong.
With regard to the Chinese house churches, while the Politburo’s reasoning in labeling them a cult does not conform to the definition of a cult, the Politburo’s reasons are accurate in describing the house churches’ desires and motivations.
The growth of Christianity in China, overwhelmingly in the house churches, has been so startling in recent years that even secular observers and the mainstream international media are predicting that China could soon become the world’s largest Christian nation. See, for example, this recent August 2010 report from the British Guardian newspaper: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/aug/28/china-future-christianity
Although accurate figures are unavailable, estimates of the total number of Protestant Christian believers in China range from at least 40 million to as many as 130 million. That puts the number of Christians on par with or exceeding the number of Chinese Communist Party members, who total 60 million. The Chinese government’s internal figures from 2006 put the number of Protestant Christians at 35 million.
At the current rate of growth, the prediction that was first made in 2003 of a Christianized China within three decades does not seem at all farfetched. That prediction came from former Time Magazine Beijing bureau chief David Aikman (www.davidaikman.com) in his groundbreaking book Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power (http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Beijing-Christianity-Transforming-Changing/dp/1596980257/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpi_1). In it, he defines a “Christianized” country as one in which 20 to 30 percent of the population is Christian. The estimates of 40 million to 130 million Chinese believers mean that 3 to 10 percent of China’s population already are Christians.
The significance of those numbers has not been lost on Christians around the world. For the largest international gathering of evangelical Christians in two decades—the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelism that was held in October—countries were invited to send delegations in proportion to the size of each country’s evangelical population. The formula resulted in a 400-strong representation from the United States as compared with a mere 80-person delegation from the United Kingdom. China’s delegation, by contrast, was one of the largest, at 230. A total of 4,000 Christian leaders from 198 countries attended Lausanne.
The Lausanne invitation no doubt displeased Chinese leaders because it effectively barred any representatives from China’s official Three-Self churches from attending. That’s because, due to the conference’s evangelical stance, all delegates were asked to sign a document expressing their commitment to evangelism, which Three-Self church leaders could not do because the Chinese constitution bans proselytizing.
China’s house churches, however, not only responded with eagerness, they surprised many observers by not only raising all the funds to cover all their own expenses to attend the conference, but also raising enough funds to support dozens of Christians from neighboring countries as well, thereby raising the international profile of the mainland house churches even more.
The first sign of an official backlash occurred as the Chinese delegates embarked on their journeys to the conference site in Cape Town, South Africa. All around China, security personnel mobilized and stopped all but two Chinese delegates from leaving the country.
The government action no doubt was influenced by the announcement just days earlier that the winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize was imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. In the weeks that followed, official harassment of human rights activists and house church Christians intensified.
These have included the following government actions previously reported by ChinaAid:
§ On Nov. 1, one of China’s foremost legal scholars and advocates of constitutional democracy and an influential Beijing house church leader, Dr. Fan Yafeng, was placed under house arrest following a daylong detention and police interrogation two days earlier that culminated with a police order banning “all activities and Christian gatherings” at his home and office.
§ On Nov. 20, in defiance of the Vatican, China’s Catholic leaders ordained Fr Joseph Guo Jincai the bishop of Chengde, in Hebei province, the first time since 2006 that Chinese authorities had ordained a bishop without papal consent. The ordination set back hopes for improved Beijing-Vatican relations. Click here to read the news
§ On the evening of Nov. 30 in the United States, which was the morning of Dec. 1 in Beijing and the first day of Operation Deterrence, ChinaAid’s websites collapsed under an unrelenting barrage of cyberattacks, believed to have originated from China. Click here to read the news
ChinaAid, which was founded in 2002 to draw international attention to China’s gross human rights violations against house church Christians, monitors and reports on religious freedom violations in China. Drawing on a wide network of sources throughout the country, ChinaAid issues frequent news releases on cases of religious persecution in China. The Midland, Texas-based organization also assists victims of religious persecution to assert their rights and works to promote the rule of law in China.
ChinaAid has earned an international reputation as a reliable source of the most up-to-date information about religious persecution and the overall human rights situation in China. ChinaAid founder and president Pastor Bob Fu has testified before many government and international organizations, including various U.S. congressional committees, the European Parliament and the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.