With the 2008 Beijing Olympics quickly approaching, Beijing’s communist leadership has failed to address many of the persistent religious freedoms issues that continue to plague Chinese society. In applying for the Games, the country’s communist regime promised the U.N. and several international human rights bodies that it would make significant strides in the coming years to improve religious freedoms, leading some observers to believe that positive changes were on the near horizon.
But in typical Beijing fashion, Chinese President Hu Jintao’s government has clamped down on religious dissidents, viewing a rise in spirituality as a threat to its authority and power. Corinna-Barbara Francis, an East Asia researcher at Amnesty International, says there's evidence persecution of dissidents has increased. “There's been a serious crackdown on a whole range of human rights defenders in China already," Francis said this month. In particular, China’s approximately 25 million Christians, a group including both Protestants and Roman Catholics, have become the focus of Beijing’s increasing resentment and suspicion.
The lack of progress concerning religious freedoms has been extremely troubling to the Bush administration. While attending Protestant services at a church in Beijing in November 2005, U.S. President George Bush called on the country’s leaders to assure the rights of the Chinese people to religious freedoms. “My hope is that the government of China will not fear Christians who gather to worship openly. A healthy society is a society that welcomes all faiths and gives people a chance to express themselves through worship with the Almighty,” the President said. Since then, persecution of the country’s Christian population has exploded with several well-documented cases of abuse, torture and false imprisonment.
In March 2006, Human Rights Watch noted that over one year after the passage of China’s Regulations on Religious Affairs - regulations that state Chinese citizens have a constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of religious belief - little progress had been made. The regulations, the first comprehensive action designed to ensure religious freedoms in China, were supposed to usher in an age of greater tolerance and understanding. Instead, the regulations have been an overwhelming failure. Chinese officials continue to detain and arrest Christian worshipers, harass clergy and restrict access to religious sites in the name of “safeguarding the unification of the country and the stability of society.”
More recently, Beijing has used the global “war on terror” to justify the false imprisonment of Christian activists on national security grounds. China’s petitioning system, or court system, receives countless abuse complaints from citizens. However, instead of receiving justice, activists who report abusive activities are often charged with “illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities.” As a result, many religious activities by Christians have moved underground and out of sight of the communist regime and the official Chinese Catholic Church.
In China’s Hebei province, the Catholic population has come under attack. In December, a Rome-based, Catholic news agency reported that nine priests of China’s underground Roman Catholic Church were arrested during Christmas prayer celebrations for meeting in a location not sanctioned by Beijing. Earlier, the brutal beating and hospitalization of several nuns by a group of local police officials and street thugs provided another example of how religious freedoms continue to suffer under the oppressive fist of Chinese President Hu Jintao.
In addition to the recent arrests and beatings, six Catholic bishops have either disappeared or been detained over the past several months. Bishop Jia Zhiguo was detained by state officials for not keeping activities such as the celebration of the Mass and distribution of sacraments more “discreet.” Christian religious training schools have been raided in Jiangxi province in an effort to discourage membership and the publication of religious literature such as Bibles and their possession have been strictly prohibited.
This month, the arrest of three female Christian church leaders in northeastern China by about 30 police officers and security officials from the government’s Religious Affairs Bureau for violation of the government’s policy of permitting worship only in official churches gained international attention. The three women were subsequently sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention and submitted to involuntary “re-education.” Taken collectively, these are not innocuous actions, rather, they point to a continued trend by Beijing to suppress and intimidate.
In addition to Christians, Muslim Uighurs and ethnic Tibetans have come under government scrutiny with the most famous case involving the Dalai Lama, a revered figure in Tibetan Buddhism who has been forbidden to return to Tibet. Since 1999, beatings, imprisonments, torture and murders have escalated against the Falun Gong religious movement which Beijing has identified as an “evil cult.”
To address the increased persecution of Chinese Christians, Pope Benedict XVI said this week that the Holy See would continue its efforts to improve diplomatic relations with China. “The Vatican will continue the path of respectful and constructive dialogue with the governmental authorities so as to overcome past misunderstandings,” a Vatican statement said. In a meeting at the Vatican residence with several Chinese Roman Catholic bishops, the Pope said he would send a personal letter to Catholics in the country very soon expressing his support for the free expression of religious beliefs.
The Pope’s recent attempts to normalize relations notwithstanding, Vatican-China bilateral relations remain noticeably strained, with the continual harassment of the county’s Roman Catholic population through the practice of forced “re-education,” the confiscation of church land and property and the ordination of priests and bishops by Chinese state authorities without Vatican approval.
Adding fuel to the already flammable situation, the U.S. State Department released its annual International Religious Freedom Report in September criticizing Beijing’s respect of freedom of religion labeling it as “poor” and saying religious and spiritual groups were “subject to restrictions, including intimidation, harassment and detention.”
As expected, Beijing blasted the report saying accusations that religious freedoms were under attack were “groundless” criticisms and “interference in China’s internal affairs.” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said, “China is strongly dissatisfied and resolutely opposed to the U.S. accusation of Chinese activities in its religious freedoms report.”
Such denials have become the norm for Beijing, but there is little doubt that religion is frowned upon because it demonstrates man’s allegiance to an almighty, all powerful creator, one which the communist party cannot influence through threats or intimidation. During more than 5,000 years of history, China has established roots in Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. Recently, that diverse history has been strengthened by the steady rise of Christianity which has exploded in many regions. But to Beijing’s communist leadership, religion remains a threat, since knowledge and understanding begets individualism and respect for the dignity of human life.
International law notes that freedom of belief is not a right to be granted by the state, but a practice that is to be protected by the state. Beijing continues to follow a policy of telling the world what it wants to hear so that it will get what it wants – so far, that policy has worked perfectly. But in time, the country’s leadership will need to recognize and accept religion as an integral part of Chinese culture; otherwise, it will face a national revolution that even Chairman Mao would find hard to suppress.
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