|Pastor Zhang Shaojie|
Religious Freedom in China: A Case of Smoke and Mirrors
By Jinghong Cai
“If you have faith as a mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’, and it shall move; and nothing shall be impossible to you (Matthew 17:20).” This is what is happening in China today—more and more Chinese are sowing this mustard seed and seeking the salvation of Jesus Christ.
According to some reports, there are 53 million Christians in China; others put it at 160 million. It is difficult to find accurate, official figures because the Chinese government systematically conceals or distorts the truth when it doesn’t suit its agenda. What seems to be apparent, though, is that the government’s fear is growing with this fast growth of the Christian faith among Chinese.
As usual, the Chinese government’s response to its own fear is the use of force to intimidate its people. As an old Chinese saying goes, “you can send a frightening signal to a monkey by killing a chicken in front of him.”
Recently, journalists from Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Sky News and other non-mainstream media reported details of a blatant case of Chinese authorities violating the little, nominal freedom of religion of the people. Pastor Zhang Shaojie and members of his church were tied and dragged out of their place of worship by the Nanle County local police, in Henan province. They were arrested and put in jail without any arrest warrant. Shortly thereafter, over 100 church members and other supporters gathered in front of City Hall to demand Pastor Zhang’s unconditional release, to no avail. The lawyers hired by the church were not allowed to meet with Pastor Zhang. Reportedly, 15 lawyers began a hunger strike to protest being prevented from meeting Pastor Zhang and several of his aides who were detained in a crackdown that underscores the Communist Party’s often prickly attitude toward religious groups, even those sanctioned by the regime.
According to recent reports, Pastor Zhang’s daughter was forced to flee town with her eleven-month-old child after receiving anonymous phone calls threatening to “wipe out her entire family” if she continued to contact news outlets overseas about the incident. Also, local mobs attacked the group of Christians, the lawyers, and the British journalists who were trying to investigate the episode. One lawyer hired by the church said the mobs were paid and backed by the local government.
In China, most people will never hear about this case because of government censorship. Even if some sources were able to report on this case, Pastor Zhang would most likely be labeled a criminal and his arrest attributed to practicing illegal cult worship, the same allegations used to persecute Falung Gong followers.
|This photo shows the government-hired mob that attacked
lawyers and SkyNews journalists, forcing them to barricade
themselves in an empty office. (Photo: ChinaAid)
As a Chinese who grew up in that kind of censorship, and now living in the U.S., it baffles me to find how some people in the West who read the reports and even saw videos of the local Christians, lawyers and journalists being attacked, have taken a rather cynical attitude toward the reports. Some claimed they had been to China, went to church freely and enjoyed the local church activities. Others even seemed to give credence to the possibility that journalists were biased and the church indeed was practicing illegal cult worship. I can only conclude this attitude results from extreme naïveté or ignorance of life in China under the Communist regime and the Chinese government’s modus operandi.
In theory, the Chinese constitution grants all citizens freedom of religion. Also, in theory, people in China can go to church “freely,” as Americans do. Yet, Chinese Christians are afraid to let others know that they go to church; they fear to even share their faith with family and friends lest they land behind bars for being a witness of Jesus Christ.
Freedom of religion means the right to live your life in accordance with your faith. Christians are called upon to “go forth and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:19); In China, Christians who abide by this commandment fear for their freedom and even their lives, as the Communist Party sees itself as the people’s only savior, not Jesus.
As a child, I grew up singing “Only Chairman Mao is our Savior.” In the 21st century, the Chinese Communist Party still regards itself as the only path to the “salvation” of the Chinese people. True Christians, who believe otherwise and try to live accordingly, will be persecuted.
The irony is that Pastor Zhang’s is a “sanctioned” church. In China, a sanctioned church not only is registered with the government’s Bureau of Religious Affairs and local, public security offices or police stations; they also have to belong to the quasi-government religious organization Christian Three-Self Patriotic Association, whose main mission is to call on pastors and church members to “oppose American imperialism and practice patriotic education.” Under the leadership of the Christian Three-Self Patriotic Association, the only mission of the church is to follow the Communist Party line—“Love the Communist Party, Love the nation and Love God”…in that order. If a sanctioned church is persecuted, what fate can non-sanctioned churches expect?
I remember, back in 1986 I wanted to get a copy of the Bible, but it wasn’t an easy task. Churches were always closed to the public for fear of getting in trouble with the government. A clerk working at the Three-Self Patriotic Association rejected my request and asked me whether I had a government approval letter to have a copy of the Bible. Three months later, I received an anonymous letter instructing me to go to a secluded place and wait for a stranger who would deliver a book to me. In a surreal scene right out of a “cloak and dagger” movie of the 50s, the stranger showed up in a black trench coat and a big hat and handed me a thick book wrapped in a brown bag. The book had a dark green cover with the title “International Studies”. Inside, it said “The Bible—Old Testament and New Testament”.
A quarter of a century later, I was baptized into the Christian faith in the United States. One day, as I attended bible study at a small church in a mountain town in Idaho, an elderly lady member of the church approached me and told me they had been keeping a Chinese-language copy of the Bible for a long time. They had been waiting for many years to give it to a Chinese. I simply burst into tears.
I sought the Lord, and he answered me;
he delivered me from all my fears.
Jinghong Cai is a PhD Candidate in the field of Education at a university in the U.S.
China Aid Contacts