China's relentless assault on religious freedom
(COMMENTARY) In January 2018, a massive explosion shook the Chinese city of Linfen. As pillars of smoke billowed above the eerily silent streets, onlookers realized that one of the largest churches in China had been leveled.
Elsewhere in the world, one might have logically assumed that the huge church’s destruction was an act of anti-Christian terrorism.
And it certainly was an act of anti-Christian violence. But the bombing didn’t happen in the Middle East and the perpetrators were not Islamist terrorists.
Instead, China’s paramilitary “People’s Armed Police” had raided the Golden Lampstand Church – home to more than 50,000 “unregistered” Christian worshipers – in Shanxi Province. They had packed its worship hall with explosives and clicked a detonator.
Like innumerable other attacks on Chinese churches – crosses ripped off, Bibles torched and pastors arrested – the demolition of the Golden Lampstand Church was officially sanctioned, part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s escalating battle against religious faith.
Since 2017, a rapidly broadening pattern of assaults on believers, faith leaders and worship centers has been evident to observers, including US government researchers.
The 2018 Annual Report of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) was presented on October 10 by Senator Marco Rubio and Congressman Chris Smith. Smith explained that President Xi Jinping’s unsparing efforts to pound religious faith into a Maoist template has resulted in unspeakable misery and bloodshed. If Chinese citizens don’t follow hard-line Communist party requirements, Smith warned, “You are going to be arrested, you are going to be tortured, and in many cases you are going to be killed.”
Still, some seek to negotiate. The Roman Catholic Church, for example.
On September 22, the Vatican signed a secretive, controversial and provisional agreement with China to recognize state-appointed bishops. China would, in turn, recognize the pope as the head of China’s Catholics. Pope Francis explained that this was done “with a view to sustaining the proclamation of the Gospel in China.”
Nina Shea, director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and a practicing Catholic herself remarked, “The best thing to be said about the Vatican-China agreement is that it is provisional.”
Both Catholics and Protestants suffer discrimination in educational opportunities, wages, housing, and numerous other perks only available to non-religious Chinese citizens. But Christians are not the only victims of Xi’s abuses.
Tibetan Buddhists continue to endure harsh treatment – their devotion to the Dalai Lama is perceived as disloyalty to the People’s Republic of China, verging on treason. In 2017, Beijing began demolishing one of the world’s largest Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and academies, the Larung Gar, while reducing the population of monks and nuns from 12,000 to less than 5,000.
Chinese who practice Falun Gong spiritual exercises are subject to arrest, imprisonment and, according to numerous reports, execution for purposes of organ harvesting.
Even the tiny Jewish study center in Kaifeng – a historic site which once boasted a beautiful synagogue – recently saw its metal Star of David emblems torn away by local authorities and its reading room trashed. Since then, the small Jewish congregation has been threatened; they remain afraid to gather for worship. The Forward has speculated that “the growing profile of the Kaifeng Jews — including a New York Times post about a Passover Seder in 2015 — may have raised the ire of some authorities.”
Judaism is not a recognized religion in China. Islam, however, is.
Nonetheless, the US Congressional Report describes intense and egregious persecution of China’s Muslims in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, where there is documentation of “dramatic increases in Communist Party control of government, society and business, and the increased use of technology as a repression tool.”
“The human rights violations in Xinjiang today,” Representative Smith recognized, “are of a scope and scale not seen in China since the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.”
On October 4, presenting the Trump Administration’s China policy in a speech at Hudson Institute, Vice President Mike Pence announced, “In Xinjiang, the Communist Party has imprisoned as many as one million Muslim Uighurs in government camps where they endure around-the-clock brainwashing. Survivors of the camps have described their experiences as a deliberate attempt by Beijing to strangle Uighur culture and stamp out the Muslim faith.”
Since former US president Richard Nixon’s stunning outreach to China in the 1970s, the US has pursued an open and friendly policy, in the hope of seeing China become a “responsible global stakeholder.”
But four decades later, a responsible, freedom-loving Chinese state can only be found in Taiwan’s vibrant democracy.
Thus, US President Donald Trump’s new China policy has introduced a less indulgent American approach. It was described by one commentator as a declaration of “Cold War II,” confronting China’s misbehavior in trade, cyberspace, supply-chain manufacturing, intellectual property use, political interference and military belligerence.
Pence concluded with a small ray of hope, citing an ancient Chinese proverb that “Men see only the present, but heaven sees the future.”
It was an apt quotation. Because heaven only knows what the future holds for China’s people of faith.
This article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post.
The writer is an internationally recognized expert on religious persecution, an award-winning author, and an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute who lived in Jerusalem for over a decade. Her book Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner received wide critical acclaim. She is also co-author of Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians, and Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter @lelagilbert.