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Olympic Glare Exposes Religious Freedom Issues

ICC Note:

The Olympic spotlight on China has fortunately exposed the gross human rights abuses that, despite promises and even hints at change to the contrary, continue to plague its citizens, especially those Chinese Christians who refuse to place the government before God.


5/22/08 China (CompassDirect) When the International Olympic Committee in July 2001 awarded China the right to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, Chinese citizens were ecstatic. But what potentially could have been China’s proudest moment has turned into something of a public relations minefield as world media probe China’s human rights gains and abuses.

Among key issues raised is religious freedom, with China watchers reporting ongoing restrictions on freedom of worship, particularly for unregistered church groups, arrests, detention in labor camps and confiscation of Christian literature.

Hosting the Olympic Games provides China with a unique opportunity to showcase its stunning economic development. But with an estimated half a million foreign visitors expected and over 20,000 journalists, the government fears it will also be a prime opportunity for dissidents and human rights activists to present their cause to the world media.

As Liu Junning of the China Cultural Research Institute pointed out recently, “Chinese leaders want the country put in the limelight. But the light is very hot.”

Chinese citizens can now choose their own careers, travel abroad, own a car and establish a business. But Christians cannot legally hold a prayer meeting in a private home, share a church service with foreign Christians or interact with foreign Christian organizations. China still bans religious education for children under the age of 18 and limits the publication of Bibles and other religious materials.

Many Chinese Christians see little good coming from the Olympics in the way of religious liberty. Some point to a government crackdown on unregistered house churches over the past year, as evidenced in a 2007 report issued in February by the China Aid Association (CAA), and an unprecedented expulsion of foreign missionaries in 2007 as part of a “clean-up” in preparation for the Games.

Others fear religious persecution will increase after the Games as the world’s media moves on from China.

The government has stepped up an official campaign against human rights activists and lawyers in recent months – and increased its suppression of religious believers, particularly members of unregistered Protestant and Catholic groups.

Protestant Crackdown

State security officials summoned house church leader Lou Yuanqi of Huocheng County in Xinjiang for questioning last Friday (May 16) and detained him for “inciting separatism,” according to CAA. That was only the latest in a series of raids and detentions.

On January 23, police raided and severely beat members of a house church in Yunnan province, CAA reported. The raid occurred after two church members, Chen Xiqiong and Liang Guihua, visited the Xishan District’s Public Security Bureau office to request an account of items, including Bibles, which had been taken from the church and burned by police in December.

Also in December, authorities in Shandong arrested 270 house church leaders who had gathered for training in Linyi city. According to CAA, officials released 249 of the leaders but sentenced 21 senior leaders to between one and three years of detention in labor camp.

Another three house church leaders were detained in Shandong on May 8. Police arrested 46 Christians at a house church meeting in Kashgar, Xinjiang province on April 13. They released 44 Christians after ordering them to confess their illegal Sunday worship activities and study a government handbook on religious policy. Two other Christians, Ding Zhichun and Ma Wenxiu, were sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention.

CAA also said officials had launched an “Anti-illegal Christian Activities Campaign” in Xinjiang. Authorities have arrested at least three Uyghur house church Christians in recent months. Police arrested Alimjan Yimit (or Ahlimujiang Yimiti in Chinese) on January 12 and accused him of endangering national security.

Officials had previously closed Alimjan’s business in September and accused him of using it as a cover for “preaching Christianity among people of Uyghur ethnicity.” His trial has now been rescheduled for Monday (May 26), according to Compass sources.

Osman Imin (Wusiman Yaming in Chinese) was arrested on November 19, 2007, accused of “leaking state secrets” and sentenced to two years of labor camp. Compass has confirmed that a female believer arrested earlier this year also remains in detention in Xinjiang. (See Compass Direct News, “China: Trial Delayed for Uyghur Christian,” May 13.)

The worse may be yet to come; CAA sources are predicting a severe crackdown on all unregistered house churches beginning on June 1.

Catholic Restrictions

Authorities are also restricting Catholic activity, closely guarding bishops in the official Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA) and keeping underground bishops in forced isolation. Several Catholic priests remain in detention in labor camps.

In February, Yie Xiaowen, director of the State Administration of Religious Affairs, said he hoped that Pope Benedict XVI would visit China during the Games. In March, however, he lashed out against an alleged “power grab” from the Vatican council and accused it of being “double-faced” in seeking diplomatic relations with Beijing.

China has consistently denied the absolute authority of the Pope over Roman Catholicism, appointing its own bishops and encouraging Chinese Catholics to maintain greater loyalty to the Chinese government.

The country officially recognizes five religions – Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Islam and Taoism. An official patriotic association for each religion controls adherents’ activities and governs the appointment of clergy.

Officially there are 16 million Protestant believers and 5 million Catholics, but these figures exclude members of unregistered churches. Compass sources estimate there are 60 million additional Christians: 10 million in major house church networks, 35 million in independent rural house churches and 15 million in independent house churches.

Oddly, last year Yie of Religious Affairs said in two internal meetings in Beijing University and the Chinese Academy of Social Science that the total number of Christians in China had reached 130 million, according to CAA.

Appealing for Greater Liberty

In late March, the Religious Liberty Partnership (RLP), a coalition of several groups working for global religious liberty, issued a statement encouraging Christians around the world to pray for the Chinese church in the lead-up to the Olympics.

The statement acknowledged advances in religious freedom in China over the past 40 years but called on the Chinese government to honor its recent declaration that believers have an important role to play in the development of society. Jia Qinglin, chairman of the national committee of the National People’s Congress, had said in early March that the state “should fully follow the policy on freedom of religious belief, implement the regulations on religious affairs, and conduct thorough research on important and difficult issues related to religion.”

He also said the Chinese government should guide religious leaders and believers to make full use of their positive role in promoting social harmony.

“We hope and pray this [government declaration] will translate into the removal of remaining obstacles to the full expression of faith and an end to serious violations of religious freedom,” the RLP said in its statement.


Meeting Religious Needs of Foreign Visitors

Religious freedom may be tightening for Chinese Christians, but authorities hope to accommodate the spiritual needs of visitors to the Olympic Games.

For starters, Beijing officials have asked local believers to provide religious services for foreigners attending the Games, according to a Reuters report on March 5.

In response, Chen Guangyuan, president of the Islamic Association of China, said his association was training volunteers to hold English and Arabic prayer services for visiting Muslims.

Fu Xianwei, president of the official Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee of Protestant Churches, and Liu Bainian, vice-chairman of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, both told media that they were providing language training for official religious services during the Games.

The Beijing Olympic Committee responded positively to Liu’s suggestion that Bibles be placed in Beijing hotel rooms for the religious needs of foreign visitors, according to a report in the China Daily on March 10.

Amid reports of Chinese authorities confiscating Christian literature ahead of the Games, Luis Palau, a prominent Christian evangelist, has encouraged Christian visitors to bring Bibles to the Olympics.

“Any person can go in there and take Bibles, as long as they’re not selling them,” Palau told The Christian Post.

His suggestion, however, directly contradicted a November 2007 edict, when the Chinese government included the Bible on a list of items banned from the Olympic Village and warned visitors not to bring more than a single Bible with them on their visit to China.