President Bush’s recent visit to China — he arrived there shortly after the State Department listed China as one of eight countries “of particular concern” for suppressing freedom of religion — once again drew attention to the tribulations of the church in the world’s most populous nation.
“Our government has lodged a protest against the State Department action,” Chu Maoming, press counselor at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., told Chalcedon. “The Chinese Constitution guarantees religious freedom. Our government permits all religious activities, under the rule of law. Every religious activity should be conducted according to the rule of law.”
Under Chinese law, only churches licensed by the state can meet, worship, or conduct any other kind of business legally. President Bush attended services at one of only five Protestant churches in Beijing that are registered with the government. Beijing has a population of almost 15 million.
For Americans who have followed this story over the years, the more familiar picture is of Chinese Christians being beaten, dragged through the streets, and weeping as their house churches are bulldozed.
That China persecutes the church is “not true — totally groundless,” Chu said. “Our government does not permit torture. The stories, the pictures, are all made up by the media.”
Voice of the Martyrs
When he read Mr. Chu’s comments, Todd Nettleton of Voice of the Martyrs laughed out loud.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but if you don’t laugh at this, you have to cry. I’ve been to China four times, and I have a different view of the situation.”
The Voice of the Martyrs, headquartered in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, is a nonprofit organization “serving the persecuted church for more than 35 years.” VOM monitors anti-Christian persecution all over the world and aids victims by providing moral and material support — from Bibles to medical supplies — and rallying world opinion to speak out against it.
In the months preceding the president’s visit, according to VOM, the Chinese government waged a fierce persecution of unregistered house churches all over the country — demolishing homes where believers met for worship services, confiscating church property, arresting, beating, humiliating, imprisoning, and often torturing church members and their pastors. These stories make grim reading. (For details, see the VOM Newsletter, Nov. 2005, www.persecution.com.)
“We have pictures, video clips, interviews, names, and addresses,” Nettleton said. “Some of this we’ve collected ourselves; some of it has been smuggled out of the country. American teachers and missionaries have been arrested, too.”
About 20% of China’s Christians belong to the state-licensed churches, he said, with the other 80% in house churches: “all of their meetings are illegal, so they’re always liable to be arrested and imprisoned.”
China is of particular interest because of its size, a population of 1.3 billion. Although there are no firm statistics, Nettleton said, “I’m sure China has at least 100 million Christians. The largest house group membership in China would dwarf the largest American denomination.
“The Chinese government is very concerned. There are already probably more Christians than there are Communist party members. At the rate the church is growing, 30 years from now, China could be a mostly Christian nation.”
The Chinese government claims that there are only 10 million Christians in China; that the state must control the church so that foreign interests cannot use it to “evangelize” or “westernize” Chinese citizens, or “use religion as a political tool against socialist China”; and that reports of persecution are “stories” created “to deceive overseas Christians” (see “China Refutes Distortions about Christianity,” http://www.china-embassy.org/eng/zt/zjxy/t36493.htm).
Pressuring the Persecutors
Although Nettleton doubted that the president’s visit or the State Department’s public statement would have any immediate effect on China’s religious policies, he said the actions of American Christians can be very valuable to the persecuted church in China.
“First, pray. That’s the thing that makes the most difference,” he said. “Then contact the Chinese government through the embassy. They are very concerned with what the world thinks about them.”
Every letter or phone call to the embassy, he said, “generates a cable back to Beijing.
“The Chinese respond to worldwide indignation. We’ve had many Chinese Christians tell us that their prison sentences were shortened, or even ended right away, because of the letters and phone calls the government received from American Christians.” VOM frequently identifies persecuted Christians by name so that Americans can mention them in their letters to the embassy — and in their prayers.
Why does a powerful communist country like China care about public opinion?
“They’ve got a lot of little green reasons for why they want to court world opinion,” Nettleton said, “billions of dollars’ worth of business they do with America. Because of that, they’re sensitive. A persecuting country like North Korea, on the other hand, where they don’t do business with America, doesn’t care what we think. But China cares very much.
“All religions are persecuted in China — Christianity, Tibetan Buddhism, Falun Gong, and even Islam. If it were up to the Communist party, there’d be no religion at all in China.”
But the Chinese church is growing in spite of persecution.
“We report some pretty terrible stories,” Nettleton said. “You’d think the people undergoing this persecution would be depressed, or intimidated, but that’s not the case. The spirit of these Christians is strong. You can’t help being impressed by them.
“Persecution tends to produce a more solid Christian. Everyone who’s in those churches is willing to sacrifice for their faith. They know what they’re risking, and they are committed to the cause of Christ. Confronting this issue can be a challenge for American Christians. We’re not used to thinking in terms of persecution.”
To contact the Chinese Embassy, mail letters to:
Embassy of the People’s Republic of China
2300 Connecticut Ave. NW
Washington, D.C. 20008
or phone the switchboard, 202-328-2500.
For more information on the Voice of the Martyrs, or to receive the VOM Newsletter free of charge, see the website, www.persecution.com or phone 918-337-8015.
- Lee Duigon
Lee is the author of the Bell Mountain Series of novels and a contributing editor for our Faith for All of Life magazine. Lee provides commentary on cultural trends and relevant issues to Christians, along with providing cogent book and media reviews.
Lee has his own blog at www.leeduigon.com.