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Christian Scholars Discuss Religious Freedom In China Amid Socioeconomic Development

ICC Note:

At a recent seminar, scholars discussed the conditions of religious freedom throughout China, noting that the country has shifted its method only slightly from strict control to regulation. While registered churches who agree to be closely monitored by the government could live a relatively stable existence as long as they choose the path of least resistance, there is still the matter of the Christians who are suffering that can likely only be effectively addressed from within.

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1/23/2008 China (ANS)

According to news reported on the www.ucanews.com web site, China’s official policy on religion has changed little amid the nation’s rapid socioeconomic development, but government officials have changed their way of handling religions, Hong Kong Christian scholars say.

Chan Shun-hing of Hong Kong Baptist University’s Department of Religion and Philosophy sums up this new attitude by saying the Communist-led government has shifted “from controlling to regulating” religions.

The associate professor spoke on “Looking into China’s religious situation from the aspect of social development” at a seminar held to mark the 30th anniversary of Hong Kong Catholic diocese’s Justice and Peace Commission.

The seminar, titled “Religious Freedom amid the Rise of China,” was held on Dec. 16. Most of the 60 participants belong to parish social-concern groups.

In the 1980s, Chan noted, it was “not uncommon” for Catholic clerics not recognized by the Chinese government to be detained or jailed for up to 10 years. But now some of these “underground” clerics are kept under house arrest in guesthouses, he said, suggesting that government officials are more flexible and have a better knowledge of religion.

From research he did on the mainland Catholic Church, the Protestant scholar said China’s market economy has had a significant effect on lay Catholics’ livelihood, with many starting businesses or taking salaried jobs in private enterprises.

This resulted in decreased involvement in Church activities, he acknowledged, but it also improved their socioeconomic situation. This, he said, gave them and the Church, to which they could contribute more in other ways, a stronger standing that helped in dealings with local officials.

Meanwhile, he continued, China’s development encouraged government officials to take a more pragmatic stance, and they became more willing to dialogue with “underground” clerics for the sake of social stability.

With each side having something to gain — the Church gets more freedom while the officials are able to maintain stability — it is easier for both sides to compromise, Chan said. He observed that even in Mindong and Wenzhou dioceses, underground strongholds in eastern China, officials allow the local Catholic communities more freedom for their activities.

In Chan’s view, the Church could improve religious freedom gradually through negotiations with government officials by becoming stronger, improve Church leaders’ negotiating skills and changing officials’ concept of religion.

Anthony Lam Sui-ki, senior researcher with the Hong Kong diocese’s Holy Spirit Study Centre, said in his seminar presentation that the idea that China is “rising as a world power” masks certain realities. He described China as on a course of social transformation, from which some benefit while others suffer. “So where should the China Church stand?” he asked.

In his analysis, the mainland Church has sufficient resources to live an insular existence apart from society at large, should it want to do this. “Then, there would be no need for the Church to fight for religious freedom and the government would be happy,” he said.

On the other hand, he continued, if the China Church sides with those who are suffering and is outspoken about social needs, the government might accuse the Church of challenging its governance.

Mainland Church leaders need to think seriously if they want to do this, Lam said, but he also suggested this “pain of faith renewal” is worthwhile for the Church.

Concerning the Protestant Church in China, Protestant scholar Ying Fuk-tsang pointed out that different government departments in China have different approaches to managing the religious sector.

The associate professor at the Divinity School of the Chinese University of Hong Kong said the public security bureau is interested primarily in stability, while the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department wants to restrict the development of religion.

He likened the way the Chinese government manages the “religion market” to a “state-run enterprise,” demanding total control. But as it began to realize it could no longer control every aspect of life, he said, it has shifted to maintaining authoritative rule.

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong, who attended the seminar, said it is up to the people of the mainland to fight for religious freedom, because only they can influence the government. In his analysis, people outside the mainland can only offer encouragement.