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Religious Freedom and Chinese Churches

Although the Chinese constitution and legal system allows full freedom of practise of any religion in China but most of us are aware, how strident the Communist Party of China and the government in the country has been in more than six decades of the modern Chinese history and the establishment of the Peoples’ Republic of China. However, the recent few months have seen more stringency and severity on Chinese Churches and Christians than other times. Of course, one cannot compare these rigidity and strictness with those inflicted during the Cultural Revolution period but people are not amused and particularly the practitioners and followers of free Chinese Churches are living under constant fear,  awe and trepidation.

There are two major reasons behind the recent strictness by the Communist Party of China. One, the CPC does not want any entity to be superior to them and they do not wish to see that people start looking at the Western God—“Jesus”, as the ultimate super-power and second the recent “Jasmine Revolution” in several Middle East and African nations and its’ grappling effect on its own territory. Religious freedom allows freedom of assembly, which might lead to getting-togetherness, common cohesiveness, building of a common ideology and the CPC is apprehensive that any kind of “common togetherness” might result into a threat to their power, hence nip the buds in the roots!

Communist Party of China is world’s largest political party boasting its membership to over 78 million–almost 5.55% of the total population of the country. In 1999, just prior to all out decimation by the government, the number of  Falu Dafa or Falun Gong adherents was threatening to be even more than CPC membership and Party started staggering. They could not digest the fact that Li Hongzhi, the founder of the Falun Dafa could have more followers than the Party itself. The party called it as an “Evil Cult” and termed it as “Heretical Organization” in 1999. In the same year, more than 10,000 of its ardent followers protested against the government’s persecution in front of Zhongnanhai (The Resident compound of the Highest Chinese Communist Party Officials) but this further resulted in more oppression and persecution of the followers. The massive gathering in front of the Zhongnanhai compound was the biggest gathering of the common Chinese people since Tiananmen Square congregation of June 1989.

In fact, in early 1990’s neither Li Hongzhi nor Falun Dafa was treated with any suspicion; on the other hand, the party had embraced Falun as an effective form of traditional Chinese Qigong or a kind of “Yoga” for treating common health problems and promoting Chinese culture and Li Hongzhi was bestowed upon with several accolades and awards. But when his book “Zhuan Falun” became the best-seller in China and his followers grew by leaps and bounds, threatening to overpass the CPC membership itself, the party was stunned, confounded, grew apprehensive and called on all out ban of Falun Gong. They started disparaging Li Hongzhi and blatantly termed “illegal” to practise Falun, possessing any of its relevant books or displaying any slogans in support of this ‘cult’. According to some foreign observers which could be purely speculative, millions of Falun Gong supporters were detained for “re-education through labour camps” and more than 2,000 adherents were persecuted and tortured to death!

Quite evidently, when the Party thinks that followers of any group, be it a religious or non-religious cluster, starts getting more prominence, it looks at it as a potential threat to their power and this has been happening to free Churches in China in the recent times.

Although, theoretically, CPC propagates atheism but there are five registered religions in the country—Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism. Number of Buddhists in China is around 100 million, but unofficially there could be several millions more. Not to talk of lower level officials, even top Communist officials regularly go and pray at Buddhist temples. When any country becomes more corrupt, it also becomes more religious. The corrupt and fraudulent officials try to take refuge in the God for fear of any persecution and also freely donate, giving an impetus to the growth of belief and religion. However, Buddhist adherents except in Tibet have never emerged as of any potential threat to the party supremacy because most of the top Abbots and officials of Buddhist Associations are themselves members of the Party. Number of pure Taoists and Muslims in the country is not more than 20 million in mainland China and they have been never of any threat to the Party. Needless to mention that, the uprisings in Tibet and Xinjiang is more due to any religious belief but political and social reasons. But even then, the top Buddhist and Muslim leaders, like the Dalai Lama and Rebiya Kadeer are completely abhorred and detested by the party.

With the reform and opening of China and influx of western culture and ideology in the country, Christianity in the recent three decades has flourished in the country in an unprecedented manner. In 1800, the number of Christians in China is speculated to be around 250,000 which almost doubled to 500,000 at the time of foundation of the New China. Even by 1978-79, before the reform and opening up of the country to the west, the number of Christians in China was not significant and it was less than 10 million. However, today it is estimated to be around 150 million, much more than the Communist Party membership.

According to the Chinese rule of law, Churches in the country must be registered with the government supervising body but these warrants into a cease on the religious practise and freedom. The registered churches in the country have a restriction on Sunday schools, baptising anybody of less than 18years and evangelism. Hence there has been mushrooming of free or house churches in the country. There are hundreds of these kinds of Churches inside the nation and one of the most prominent among these free Churches is ‘Shouwang Church’ based in Beijing. Number of the members of these free churches outstrips registered Christian membership and the membership of this ‘Shouwang Church’ is over a thousand now.

However, in light of the ‘Jasmine Revolutions’ in several countries in the world and some extent of its influence inside even in China, the communist leaders are not ready to take any chance, have been in panic and paranoid mood since January this year. And any gathering, be it of only religious congregations in nature, is looked with suspicion and the officials have not allowed Sunday worships of ‘Shouwang members’ for almost two months in a row now. The followers are petrified with the kind of crackdown but their belief in the Christ has not wavered. With the mass support, they raised several million dollars and even bought a place for worship with a huge sum of over 25 million RMB or approximately 15 Crore Rupees but with the intervention of party leaders they were debarred from getting the keys of the premises.

Several of its leaders including three elderly members and two Pastors are under house arrest for almost two months now and are not allowed for Sunday Prayer or congregations. A number of Priests of other free Churches have been pressurised to undergo forced labour. Some of the Church members even lost their jobs and some their homes, but this has still not deterred the spirit of its members and even last Sunday, over a dozen of them assembled in an open air park and offered their praying.

Buddhism in China is completely assimilated with the local culture and tradition and to some extent treated as an indigenous religion but Christianity is always looked down as an ‘Alien’ and more so “Western Religion” disseminating the gospel of Human Rights and Freedom of Expression. After the catastrophic Sichuan earthquake of 2008, according to some estimates, when the number of Chinese Free Church member volunteers outstripped the number of official volunteers, the government again got paranoid and evicted the church members and some were even incarcerated. Obviously, they did not want members of any other group earn the sympathy of the common mass than themselves.

Under this backdrop of ban, arrest and persecution, even the Pope, the Benedict XVI has intervened and asked all the Christians around the world to pray for the Bishops, Priests, Pastors and fellow adherents on May 24, last Sunday. Will the prayer of the Pop come to rescue the Chinese Christians against the Communist persecution, only Jesus knows!

(The Writer Dr Yukteshwar Kumar, is Course Director, Chinese Stream, University of Bath and can be contacted onyukt123@gmail.com. The views expressed are Author’s personal)

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