China touts new churches, but rules crimp faithful

Government still controls religion
Chicago Tribune, Mar. 3, 2004

BEIJING — Government officials and local Christian leaders showed off plans Tuesday for the first new churches being built in the capital in more than 50 years–evidence, they said, of the freedom of worship that exists in China.

The full picture, however, is far more complex. While the government architect in charge of the projects spoke proudly of the sense of religious “aspiration” he hoped to evoke in his designs, there are many Christians in China who face harassment or persecution.

China’s communist government, which is officially atheistic, controls religion and permits Christians to worship only in state-run churches.

The rules make clear that allegiance to the party comes first, and strict regulations must be followed, including a ban on baptism and Sunday school participation for anyone under 18. Proselytizing also is forbidden.

Due to these government controls, millions of Chinese Christians avoid the state churches and worship in unofficial, or “house,” churches. Others–particularly in the countryside–attend house churches because there are no state churches nearby.

They risk punishment if caught. Arrests at and crackdowns on underground churches are fairly common and have become more frequent in the last several years as the government has tried to rein in the growth of Christianity, which according to some estimates is expanding at 9 percent a year.

Bureaucracy with rules

Two leading members of the official Protestant Church, who led foreign journalists on a tour of one of the church sites, rejected the notion that the government has a stranglehold on religious belief. They characterized the government as a bureaucratic entity, though one that requires its many rules be followed.

As a result, unregistered churches should be registered, they said, and people such as Liu Fenggang, who was arrested last year for protesting the destruction of 10 underground churches in Hangzhou, should not be encouraged.

“He’s not a good person. He makes trouble and starts fights,” said Rev. Yu Xinli, chairman of the Beijing Committee of the official Protestant Church in China, known officially as part of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement.

The cumbersome name refers to the idea that the churches are Chinese and not under foreign influence, and thus operate according to the principles of self-rule, self-management and self-preaching. The government is suspicious of Christianity partly because of the history of colonialism and foreign missionaries in China.

Gao Ying, a Beijing minister and vice president of the Beijing Christian Council, said she found it “frustrating” that the foreign media fixated on religious oppression in China and ignored the strides Christianity has made in the nation since the 1960s when churches were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

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“You make your judgments compared to Western standards, when we compare it to 30 or 40 years ago, during the Cultural Revolution, when all churches were closed down and Christians were persecuted,” said Gao, who received her divinity training at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.

Gao said that when her own church reopened in the early 1980s it attracted 300 worshipers. Today, it has 4,000. She said she sensed a religious awakening in China among young, educated people who are “searching for meaning” and finding it in Christianity, and she gave no indication these people felt thwarted by the government.

‘There is spiritual longing’

“There is spiritual longing in society–people longing for love,” she said. “When they come to the church they feel embraced by love and the community.”

Observers of Christianity in China have speculated that the withering of the communist belief system and the welcoming of foreign influences as the country has shifted to capitalism have opened the door to religion’s growth. But Christianity remains bridled because government controls dissuade many potential followers and force so many activities underground.

The official Protestant Church claims 10 million followers, while 50 million or more people worship at unofficial churches. The official Catholic Church has about 5 million members, plus an additional 8 million or more underground members.

The Protestant churches under construction in Beijing have been planned since 1998 and took so long to build because of the challenge of getting funding and approvals, said Yu, the reverend. He said the new churches would cost about $5 million and said the church got the money through a land swap.

Officials said the building of the churches reflected the increasing popularity of Christianity and the government’s acceptance.

Across the country, official views on Christianity vary widely, depending on the vagaries of local political and religious leaders. In some communities unofficial churches operate in the open and even cooperate with state-run churches. Elsewhere, they must keep quiet or face trouble.

The government’s campaign to register all churches appears linked to a determination to stamp out religious groups that try to challenge the domination of the state churches. Fundamentalist sects have been targeted, while the quasi-Buddhist Falun Gong spiritual movement has been banned and driven toward extinction. Falun Gong leaders say thousands of their followers have been jailed and several hundred have died in custody, a charge the government has denied.

Government’s tight leash

The U.S. State Department said in a new report that respect for religious freedom in China is “poor.” While the government generally did not seek to suppress outright the growth of Christianity, it kept a tight leash “to prevent the rise of sources of authority outside the control” of the government.

But Gao, the church leader, said any government action against a church should not be construed as religious persecution.

“People are arrested or punished by the government not because of religious belief but because they violated the law,” she said.

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Chicago Tribune, USA
Mar. 3, 2004
Michael A. Lev, Tribune Foreign Correspondent

Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday March 3, 2004.
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