‘Faith is very important,’ but dangerous

China’s crackdown on religion won’t stop minister’s mission
National Post (Canada), Aug. 25, 2002
Peter Goodspeed

HONG KONG – Rev. Philip Woo is planning to break the law in China today.

The shy, gentle Lutheran minister, who runs Hong Kong’s Chinese Evangelical Ministry, intends to travel to flood-ravaged villages in China’s central province of Hunan with a donation of 10,000 pounds of rice. Along the way, he will also secretly visit a series of illegal underground churches to preach and hold religious services.

“It’s dangerous,” he admits with a shrug and soft smile. “But we are doing an important ministry. Today we can do it. So, we do it. If needs be, God will give us the courage to endure.”

For the last two years, China’s Communist leaders have waged a relentless crackdown on all unauthorized religious activities, specifically targeting the Buddhist-like Falun Gong spiritual group, but also taking aim at thousands of underground “house churches” such as the ones Mr. Woo regularly visits.

Thousands of people have been sent to labour camps or jail and hundreds more are said to have been beaten and killed.

Chinese officials have destroyed as many as 1,200 places of worship, including private homes, in and around the east coast port city of Wenzhou, a boom town of shoe factories and sweatshops just south of Shanghai.

Last December, five members of the Evangelical South China Church were sentenced to death and another 15 church members received severe jail terms for importing Bibles and conducting unauthorized underground church services. The death sentences were later suspended because of a massive international outcry.

This year, Lai Kwong-keung, a 38-year-old Hong Kong businessman and member of the evangelical “Shouters” sect, was sentenced to two years in prison for bringing 16,000 Bibles to an underground church in China.

Chinese officials accused him of shipping “large amounts of evil cult propaganda books.”

China banned the Shouters sect, an evangelical Christian group that gets its name from a style of worship that includes shouting out prayers, in 1995 as an “aberrant religious organization.”

Mr. Lai was originally accused of “using a cult for the disturbance of peace and order,” a charge that can carry the death sentence. But after a series of international protests, he was convicted of “illegal business practices.”

On a recent visit to China, Mr. Woo managed to visit Mr. Lai in prison. He insists he does not fear suffering the same fate.

“Faith is very important,” he says. “Nobody knows what will happen but God. If the Chinese government wants to arrest me, there is no protection. God is the best protection.”

Throughout the history of Communist China, there have been sporadic crackdowns on underground churches, which are strongest in China’s poorest provinces, which have been left behind in its economic boom.

Beijing fears that popular discontent and unsanctioned religious activity may generate political unrest. But Christianity has always rankled China’s mainland leaders. From the early 19th century on, missionaries in China were associated with the “gunboat diplomacy” that carved up China and robbed the country of its self-esteem.

When the Cultural Revolution erupted in 1966, the doors of all China’s churches were shut and Christianity went underground.

Government-sponsored churches re-emerged in the 1980s, but Beijing keep a suspicious eye on proselytizing, especially among ethnic minorities.

China’s officially sanctioned “patriotic” churches are rigidly controlled by the state, which monitors such activities as personnel selection, sermon themes, the dissemination of religious publications and congregation size. Authorized churches are expected to support government policies and to emphasize themes of political loyalty over religious identity.

China’s Communists see religion as a rival authority that needs to be controlled or suppressed. Evangelism by foreigners, and unregistered churches, are strictly forbidden. The government also claims a monopoly on printing and distributing Bibles and all religious education of children is banned.

Yet Mr. Woo and hundreds of other secret missionaries who regularly visit the mainland say there is a growing passion for religion.

Government estimates put China’s Christian population at around 16 million, but some unofficial estimates claim there are now as many as 50 million Chinese Christians.

China’s leaders fear the close-knit underground Christian communities as a potent source of liberal activism and constantly accuse the underground churches of creating “chaos” by undermining rural party branches.

“We try to operate openly, when we can,” Mr. Woo says. “In a number of places, we are directly linked to the authorized churches and work with them. But in other areas, we deal with the private house churches. In one house church in Hunan, one of the congregation is a police officer, who comes to services in his uniform. He says he is not afraid of anything, because God loves him.”

From a cramped set of offices on the seventh floor of a dilapidated office building in Hong Kong’s Mong Kok district, Mr. Woo and a half-dozen assistants administer a Chinese mission program that sponsors school scholarships for 1,000 poor students in central China, works with three authorized churches and administers to the needs of about 2,000 underground Christians in secret house churches scattered across three Chinese provinces.

It’s a missionary tradition that’s woven into the fabric of Hong Kong’s history. For 155 years before its return to China in 1997, Hong Kong served as an Asian foothold for Western missionaries, who used it as a base from which they regularly travelled into China, preaching to converts and distributing Bibles and religious tracts.

Hong Kong itself is home to a half-million Christians, who make up a disproportionate number of the city’s educated and technologically adept work force and who operate about 60% of its social services — including 45% of the schools and colleges.

But since China regained control five years ago, there has been a growing unease among some of the churches about their relationship to the government in Beijing.

Many groups that have nurtured underground churches have left Hong Kong, seeking a more secure base of operations elsewhere. Unwilling to violate China’s sensitivities and fearing a backlash against religion here, they simply moved their operations to Singapore and Taiwan.

At the same time, most Christian churches here have stepped up their contacts with China’s authorized churches. A number of Hong Kong seminaries train mainland-supported pastors and Hong Kong theologians are frequently posted in mainland seminaries.

But only a few Hong Kong clerics continue to openly conduct mission work on the mainland in the face of China’s continued crackdown on unauthorized religious organizations.

“We just depend on God,” says Mr. Woo. “God will care for the Chinese Church in China.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday August 25, 2002.
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