An on-going chapter on Christianity in China
By Brad Molnar
Special to the Outlook
Over the last two weeks readers have been introduced to two Christian missionaries and a retired doctor rendering humanitarian relief. Not all encourage these successful endeavors.
Currently the Christian population in China mirrors the number of Communist party members. The government plays down the numbers and Christian watch groups estimate their numbers far higher. But all agree that with the exponential growth of Protestants (the only other Christian religion recognized by the Chinese government is Catholic) by 2030 China will host the largest population of Christians of any nation in the world, about 268 million. The Chinese government abhors allegiance to other than itself. Their religious tolerance is limited to religious discussions that “advance the socialist system.”
China’s Protestant community (actually Baptist), had just one million members in 1949, but in 2010 reached 58 million. Now more Chinese go to church every Sunday than Christians in all of Europe. The Chinese government, through their SARA (State Administration of Religious Affairs), released 26 new rules for churches in September. These rules were repeated at every “house church” (regardless of size a house church is an unregistered church many of which actually host hundreds of worshipers) gathering and the effects debated amongst attendees. They always cheered when they were told that a cadre of pastors had nailed their response to the new rules to the doors of SARA, “just like Martin Luther,” and respectfully declined to tailor all messages to support the socialist agenda, seek approval for any publications or venues, reject all non-approved foreign and domestic donations, cease non-sanctioned international religious exchanges, curtail home-based Bible study, and the study of theology without government approval. Holding home-based Bible studies or renting space to a non-registered church can result in heavy fines, or confiscation of the home/commercial space.
The crackdown has manifested itself for years in various forms including passing new zoning regulations limiting the height of buildings so thousands of steeples and crosses have been ordered taken down. Land title searches from 1950 forward, to challenge legal ownership of land that has a church on it, are common. Many of these transactions were done between peasants and the deeds were often not properly filed, the site never surveyed, or the documents no longer exist. These land disputes often are settled with a bulldozer. Ding Cuimei stood in front of a bulldozer government ordered to demolish the Beitou Church in Zhumadian. Cuimei was pushed into a ditch and buried alive. Her husband, the church leader, was also pushed into the ditch but survived. Later the government agreed the deed was an order and apologized. Cumei is now the martyr of the resistance to government and judicial collaboration to criminalize acts of conscious.
The coastal Chinese city of Wenzhou boasted a church that cost $4.7M and took 12 years to build as the congregation grew. Officials determined it had grown larger than the original 1800 permitted sq. meters to 7900 sq. meters. As ordered, the congregation started reducing the size but when the deadline was reached bulldozers arrived. The congregation staged a month long sit-in and then circled the church holding hands to protect their church. The bulldozers won and razed the church to the ground. Local officials that allowed the church to grow and become conspicuous were arrested. Other pastors have been detained and prosecuted for possession of state secrets after their computers were seized or charged with embezzlement though the source of embezzlement is rarely mentioned. Many are still imprisoned awaiting trial.
New rules curtail
The Chinese constitution allows all religious activities that are normal. Normal means legal and legal is in the eye of the local governmental agency with oversight from SARA to determine. They tend to err on the conservative side. With these shifting sands of legal foundation many will not rent space to a church for fear of confiscation. The government says this is necessary for the common good as the new rules are precautions against “secessionism, terrorism, and infiltration of foreign powers.” By invoking national security the Chinese intelligence community is allowed a free hand in investigating religious activities. With the Chinese Christian population at less than five percent of the national population, no elections, and lawyers that represent religious sects often imprisoned, many feel that the new rules will bring on a harsh winter for religious freedom in China.
The religious crackdown intensified in 2014 under Chairman Xi Jinping and spawned the new rules. On Sept. 25, 2015, President Obama announced in a joint Rose Garden press conference with Xi that he had told Xi that “closing churches and denying ethnic minorities equal treatment are all problematic.”
Xi responded that “China is making all-around efforts to deepen comprehensive reform, to build law-based governance, [and] to enforce strict party discipline,” in the interest of “building a society of initial prosperity in all respects.”
The party-controlled press then lambasted the U.S. for interfering with internal Chinese decisions. Alleging hypocrisy they had a hay day pointing out that just twelve days earlier Kim Davis, a Clerk of Court in Kentucky, had been jailed for a crime of conscious by defying a court order while standing by her religious beliefs against issuing marriage licenses to homosexuals.