Rice Attends Church in Country Where Religious Freedom is Relentlessly Restricted

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attended a Palm Sunday service in Beijing, at a Protestant church permitted to operate by a government accused of violating freedom of religion.

She did not address the service at the Gangwashi Church in the Chinese capital, but listened to a translation through headphones, sang the hymns and signed a visitors' book: "Thank you for allowing me to share Palm Sunday with you. Yours in Christ, Condoleezza Rice."

China is one of eight nations designated "countries of particular concern" under the U.S. International Religious Freedom Act, having been assigned to the list in 1999.

The Act requires an annual report from the State Department on religious freedom globally, and the department's most recent report said that although China's constitution provides for freedom of religious belief, "the government seeks to restrict religious practice to government-sanctioned organizations and registered places of worship and to control the growth and scope of activities of religious groups."

Among those targeted by the communist authorities, according to researchers and campaigners, are Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims and adherents of the Falun Gong meditation sect.

In its handling of the growing Christian faith, Beijing has established official, "patriotic" Catholic and Protestant denominations.

The Patriotic Catholic Association does not recognize the authority of the Pope and appoints its own bishops. Millions of Catholics who are loyal to the Vatican meet underground, and face harassment.

The Protestant equivalent is the state-sanctioned Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), under which the Gangwashi Church falls.

According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), an international non-governmental organization, most Protestant Christians in China belong to illegal "house churches" which remain independent of the TSPM because of " the strongly-held belief that Christ is the head of the church and that this position cannot be usurped by a secular power."

In a major 2000 report on religious freedom in China, CSW said that while there were "good people" within the TSPM, there were also serious flaws.

"It has to operate under limitations affecting how it can preach, who can preach and where they can preach," it said, adding that TSPM churches were also not allowed to teach on certain key biblical doctrines, including the resurrection.

Another NGO concerned about religious freedom in China, Chinese Church Support Ministries, says while some ordinary members of TSPM churches were believers, leaders promoted the view that "the state is more important than God."

The TSPM's leading theologian, Bishop K.H. Ding, has promoted a "theological construction" campaign, calling into question the Christian belief that the Bible is the Word of God, and arguing that belief in Christ is secondary to loyalty required to the state.

TSPM leaders who fall out of favor have paid the price.

In late 1994, for instance, police reportedly forcibly removed the head of the Gangwashi Church, Yang Yudong, escorting him from the building and appointing another pastor in his place.

Human rights groups said at the time that Yang, who was 73, had been accused of tolerating dissidents and trying to exert his independence of the TSPM.

Human Rights Watch said that a member of the Gangwashi congregation, Liu Fenggang, was beaten up by police for filming a "near-riot" that ensued when Yang was being removed. Liu was later sent to a "re-education through labor" camp for dissident activities.

A Christian charity, Open Doors, subsequently reported that Beijing's attempt to "tame" the Gangwashi Church misfired, as many Christians left the congregation and set up a number or new, unregistered "house churches."

Before arriving in Beijing at the weekend, Rice gave a speech at a university in Japan where she called on Chinese leaders to "embrace some form of open, genuinely representative government."

Looking around them in Asia, "they will see that freedom works," she said.

"They will see that democracy works. They will see that freedom of religion and respect for human rights are part of the foundation of decent and successful societies."

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow