BEIJING, CHINA (ANS) — In a troubling setback, Chinese authorities last week launched a crackdown directed at Christians who belong to China’s huge network of unregistered house churches, calling a “cult” one of the fastest-growing populations of Christians in the world.
According to a news release from ChinaAid, the powerful Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party launched “Operation Deterrence” on Dec. 1.
ChinaAid said 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.
“CCP Central Committee for Comprehensive Management of Social order,” the foot soldiers of China’s security apparatus, have been told 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 has also reportedly been drawn up.
ChinaAid said 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 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.
ChinaAid said in recent years, the Beijing regime had stepped back from its previous hostility toward, and adamant opposition to, the house church movement. That led many Christians in China and overseas to believe 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.
However, ChinaAid said, Operation Deterrence is reminiscent of the previous era of hostilities and often brutal government persecution that had for decades driven unknown hundreds of thousands of believers “underground,” worshiping in secret and fearing for their lives and freedom.
The Politburo directive gave four reasons for labeling the house churches a “cult.” ChinaAid said the reasons were that house churches advocate and promote the Christianization of China; they seek the unity of all churches in China; they promote the unity of the Chinese church with churches worldwide and they want to have dialogue with the government.
ChinaAid said the 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 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.”
ChinaAid said labeling 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 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.
ChinaAid commented that the Beijing regime seldom admits a mistake or reverses its decisions, and even on the rare occasions that it does, negative public sentiment lingers. It can impact an individual or group for years, detrimentally impacting a person’s ability to find or keep a job, for example.
In the case of the Chinese house churches, ChinaAid said , being labeled a cult could stop 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.
ChinaAid said that could result in the more practical and immediate possibility that the same measures long 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 camps in recent years.
They have also been given long prison sentences, ChinaAid said, and even the death penalty simply because of their religious practices. 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.
ChinaAid said while originally regarded as an apolitical exercise group, Falungong was reclassified by the government as “an evil cult,” “a sect” and “superstition.” A subsequent government media campaign eroded any public opposition to the government’s crackdown on Falungong.
ChinaAid said while the Politburo’s reasoning in labeling Chinese house churches as a cult does not conform to the word’s definition, 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 China could soon become the world’s largest Christian nation.
ChinaAid said while 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.
ChinaAid was founded in 2002 to draw international attention to China’s human rights violations against house church Christians. It 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.
For more information go to www.ChinaAid.org