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China : Debate Heats Up Over Religious Rights

ICC Note

Leaked Government document reveal the intentions of Chinese government to intensify clamp down on house churches.

December 5 China (Compass Direct News) – In a confidential report, Canadian diplomats in Beijing state that China is making “incremental progress” in human rights and may make “steady forward movement” in the future, according to The Globe and Mail, but Ottawa is not convinced.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his cabinet are so critical of the human rights record of next year’s Olympic Games host that they have cancelled Canada ’s annual human rights dialogue with China . The apparent discrepancy between the Ottawa administration’s perceptions and those of Canada ’s Beijing diplomats mirrors the debate within Christian circles.

Some evangelicals have become virtual advocates for the Chinese government and its state-registered church; others continue to highlight arrests, imprisonments and even torture of unregistered house church Protestants and Catholics. Who is right?

Few would deny that, over the past 20 years, there has been genuine improvement in human rights for many Chinese Christians – so long as they register as government-controlled “patriotic” religious bodies of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, or TSPM. Large numbers of churches have been opened, youth and children’s work is now possible in many city churches, and many small Christian bookstores have opened in major cities.

But those who on conscientious grounds refuse to accept the atheist Communist Party domination of, and interference in, church affairs – and they are the majority of both Protestants and Catholics – still face a rough ride.

According to a leaked internal document, the Chinese Communist Party waged a secret campaign against unregistered house churches for nearly six months, from mid-June until the end of November. The July 24 document from Jingmen City in the province of Hubei, first disclosed by the Texas-based China Aid Association (CAA) on November 13, reveals that leading central government figures called for a crackdown to “fight against infiltration by hostile overseas forces under the guise of Christianity and to safeguard the stability of society in the religious field.”

At a National Christian Work Seminar called the 601 Conference held on June 1, the officials from the United Front Work Department and Religious Affairs and National Minorities departments ordered local authorities to detail “meeting places, participants, locations and patterns.” Information sought reached deeply: “. . . the content of sermons, personal history of [house church] evangelists, the sources of their funds, the system of their activities, key members, and the ordinary people who participate.”

The document shows conclusively that the notion that house churches can register with the authorities and avoid control by the state-controlled Protestant TSPM is largely a myth: “Normalization is achieved by registering the meetings established without proper authorization, replacing private meetings with [registered] churches, merging [unregistered] meetings and persuading them to dismantle and abolish [unregistered] meetings.”

The instructions come with the customary sting in the tail: “For those who refuse to mend their ways or to stop their activities … public security agencies shall work together with agencies in charge of religious affairs and resolutely crack down.”

More evidence of the crackdown came on November 18, when authorities detained 40 church leaders from China Gospel Fellowship (CGF). CAA reported that Public Security Bureau officers from Xiancheng County , Henan raided their house church leadership meeting in Peichang village, Fanhu town.

CAA reported that 21 of the CGF senior leaders were released before November 24. Family members of the remaining 19 detainees received notice from police to send blankets and 360 yuan (US$50) for 15 days’ living expenses. CGF is one of China ’s largest house church groups.

Among those arrested was the founder of CGF, pastor Shen Yiping. The leaders, from different counties in Henan province, were studying the Bible at the time of the raid.

Observers have said the importance of the document is that it shows that religious persecution in China continues, and that it cannot be laid only at the door of local officials. These human rights watchdogs see it as proof that the central government still wants to control, limit and eventually eliminate Christian meetings that are functioning free of state command.

The final paragraphs of the leaked government document, moreover, indicate that the Chinese government does not wish any outsiders to know of its designs.

“We should only perform the ‘special administration’ [i.e., crackdown] – but not talk about it,” it says. “Without approval from the district’s leading team for the ‘special administration,’ no agencies in all the areas shall disclose the information in this document to any media … after the documents are used they shall be stored in a confidential room and their content must not be disclosed.”

Various sources have concluded that, ahead of next year’s Olympics, the Chinese government has launched a drive to suppress Christian house churches. This government document supports that view and will lend a hollow ring to the “openness” and “freedom of religious belief” to be showcased before the watching world.