Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Millions of Christians in China continue to live and worship in fear and uncertainty, despite the communist government's denials that persecution is taking place.
To varying degrees across the vast country, according to campaigners for religious freedom, Christians who are not affiliated with a state-sanctioned church institution face harassment, fines, job discrimination, imprisonment, torture, and sometimes death.
China is one of six "countries of particular concern," so designated by the U.S. government for "egregious violations of religious freedom."
Its record in this regard was once again highlighted last week, when Washington's religious rights watchdog announced it was canceling a planned visit to China because of restrictions imposed by Chinese authorities.
The planned visit by six U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) commissioners and staff was to have included stops in several mainland cities and Hong Kong.
But after officials refused to allow the delegation to hold meetings in Hong Kong, the travel plans were called off. Last August, a scheduled visit was also canceled after the Chinese dropped Hong Kong from the agenda.
The former British colony reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, under a "one country, two systems" agreement that it would retain its way of life and capitalist system for at least 50 years.
Because of its peculiar relationship to Beijing, Hong Kong remains the freest part of China. As such, it hosts researchers and scholars - as well as dissidents - who could have given the USCIRF invaluable insights into religious persecution on the mainland.
USCIRF communications director Anne Johnson said the commission was not providing details about whom it would have met, other than to say it would have included "experts on Chinese religion and legal issues."
"Hong Kong was an important part of our trip because there is religious freedom and other freedoms there," she said. "We are free to talk to people and they are free to talk to us."
Johnson said Beijing knew of the intent to hold meetings in Hong Kong, but "chose to make it an issue at the very last minute."
The restriction put the commission in an untenable position, she said.
"Limiting access to Hong Kong seems to violate the 'one country, two systems' concept and would have set a bad precedent for other U.S. government groups on official business seeking to enter Hong Kong."
Johnson said the commission would again seek a trip to China once the U.S. and Chinese governments had worked out the differences.
The USCIRF, created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, advises the government on ways to protect religious freedom and related human rights.
The cancellation of its visit to China came just before Chinese premier Wen Jiabao met with President Bush at the White House.
It's not clear whether Bush raised the issue during their meeting, but the president did say afterwards that the growing strength of the bilateral relationship allowed the U.S. and China to discuss differences over religious freedom and other issues "in a spirit of mutual understanding and respect."
Jeff King, president of International Christian Concern (ICC), said the trip cancellation had come as an embarrassment to China on the eve of Wen's visit.
The feeling among some people close to the commission was that the Hong Kong decision had been taken by "some mid-level staffer" who didn't understand the ramifications, he said.
The Chinese leadership was becoming more sensitive to world opinion, in part because, "nowadays, if anybody of any renown gets arrested, the whole world knows about it in 15 minutes."
King said while persecution as a policy may have "loosened up," it continues to occur. "If you're in the wrong province, under the wrong local authority, it's very bad."
The Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) is the official, state-approved Protestant church organization. A parallel patriotic Catholic organization exists.
Most Protestant Christians who don't belong to the TSPM are members of underground "house churches," which can comprise hundreds or even thousands of members each.
Three months ago, King said he met in China with a group of underground pastors, and asked them how many Christians they knew who had been arrested in the past five years.
"It was a total short-circuit, because the number was so large. So I said, okay, how about the last year? And they began reeling off numbers - 50 to 300 [each], either members or pastors [of underground churches who had been arrested.]"
One of the problems faced by underground churches is the risk of being labeled a "cult."
Sue Blanchard, a New Zealand-based representative of an international group called Chinese Church Support Ministries (CCSM), said Tuesday that TSPM members sometimes denounced local underground churches as "cults."
"The Chinese government is very sensitive to cults. Anybody gets labeled as a cult, they get raided" by police and are outlawed.
The situation was complicated by the fact there are some fairly dangerous cults present in China, including one called "Lightning from the East" which has kidnapped, tortured and sought to indoctrinate, Christian pastors.
'Hungry for the Word'
Blanchard said the Christian situation in China was fairly blurred.
Some lower-level members of the TSPM were Christians, although the leadership promoted the view that "the state is more important than God."
TSPM head Bishop K.H. Ding has been pushing a "theological construction" campaign, telling church seminars that members should not confuse the Bible with the Word of God, and that belief in Christ is secondary to loyalty required to the state.
Because of this, many Christians shunned the TSPM, and found spiritual homes in "house churches."
Blanchard said these churches could be anywhere - held out in a field, or in the middle of an urban area.
She described one she had visited - an apartment of four or five floors, where the family had moved into one room, and the rest of the rooms are used for church meetings. There were speakers wired to every room, and during meetings believers crammed into the various rooms and even the stairwells, to hear the preached message.
"They're so hungry for the Word."
Some underground congregations were tolerated and left alone, but there was no telling when problems could occur.
"They go along quite happily meeting, until some local official decides he wants to feel a bit official, and he declared them as unregistered churches and they get raided."
During raids, several hundred may be arrested until officials find out who the leaders are, and then generally let the others go. Leaders could remain incarcerated for months or more. Some die in custody.
Apart from concerns about the treatment of Protestant Christians, the U.S. government has also taken issue with Beijing over its treatment of Catholics loyal to the Vatican, Tibetan Buddhists, Muslims in the eastern Xinjiang region, and adherents of the Falun Gong meditation movement.
Campaigners Concerned About Jailed Chinese Bishop (Nov. 20, 2003)
Secret Documents Reveal China's Anti-Christian Measures (Feb. 12, 2002)
Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.