China attempts to improve image while simultaneously suppressing Christians

BEIJING, China (BP)--When outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell met with Chinese officials at the end of October, they assured him they were willing to re-open a dialogue on human rights abuses in their country and Powell left saying relations between the United States and China were the best they've been in more than 30 years. But recent reports of increased persecution of Christians may construct a different assessment of the communist nation.

Beijing is set to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, and government officials are making new efforts to improve China's image in the world. In September, however, the country again was included along with nations such as North Korea, Iran and Sudan on the U.S. State Department's list of countries of particular concern as severe violators of religious liberty. The State Department cited reports of imprisonment, beatings, torture and the destruction of places of worship in China.

Some observers say the rise in suppression of Christians who may pose a threat is an attempt to "tidy up" before the eyes of the world are on China.

One example of such behavior began in mid-September when Cai Zhuohua, a prominent 32-year-old pastor who led six house churches in Beijing, was kidnapped by three plain-clothes officers. Later, his wife was kidnapped along with her brother and sister-in-law, according to Voice of the Martyrs, an Oklahoma-based interdenominational ministry aiding the persecuted church.

Authorities found about 200,000 copies of the Bible and other Christian literature in Zhuohua's possession. They believe he was operating an illegal printing press, though a source close to the pastor said the products were intended solely for internal use and not for profit.

Todd Nettleton, VOM director of news services, told Baptist Press he expects Zhuohua to be put on trial any day, though the charges likely will not be religious in nature but will be related to fraud or illegal business practices.

"The Chinese government wants to make this a criminal case rather than a religious freedom case so that the rest of the world won't understand what's going on," Nettleton said. "But after the arrest of the four people, one of the Chinese newspapers in the local area where the wife was arrested called this the most serious case on overseas religious infiltration since the founding of the People's Republic of China. So clearly somebody thinks it's a religion case."

Another example happened in July when more than 100 house church leaders were arrested at a retreat. They were surrounded by more than 200 military police who arrived at the scene in 40-plus police and military vehicles, VOM reported. The Christians were interrogated and pressured to renounce their faith under threat of formal charges and a trial, but by mid-August all but five of them were released following an international outcry led in part by VOM. The five remaining detainees could face long prison sentences, VOM said.

Also in August, the Chinese government issued three new internal directives calling for much tighter control of religion, according to Compass Direct news service. The first directive reaffirmed that no Communist Party member can openly or secretly join a religious organization. Over the past three years, 230 top party members became believers and were dismissed from the party, Compass Direct said.

The second directive includes four "don'ts," which rule out the establishment of any form of relationship with a foreign religious organization, and five prohibitions, which elaborate on those rules. Compass Direct noted that Chinese Christian converts have been accused of "collaborating" with the West and corrupting Chinese culture.

In an Aug. 27 column posted on the Baptist World Alliance website, BWA General Secretary Denton Lotz praised the progress in religious freedom being made in China and extolled the freedom to worship he experienced while on a BWA “Friendship Tour” to China.

Lotz acknowledged that China lacks "the Western understanding of religious freedom which includes witness beyond the walls of the church building," but he gave a positive, detailed account of his encounters with the China Christian Council, which many regard as a tool of the government to deceive those monitoring the status of Christian persecution.

VOM communications director Glenn Penner released a statement in response to Lotz's assessment, saying the Baptist leader did not gain an accurate picture.

"It is tragic to see how these well-meaning people were naively used by the communist government in an attempt to rehabilitate China's flagging public image as one of the most egregious religious rights violators in the world," Penner said. "One would think that Christians would have learned long ago from experience in the Soviet Union that you just cannot trust what government-sanctioned religious organizations show and tell you."

As the 2008 Olympic Games approach, some say the government will try harder to smooth over that negative image. Compass Direct said religious issues are a potential source of embarrassment for China, especially since at the South East Asian Games in Vietnam last December Vietnamese Christians protested on the steps of government buildings in order to attract international attention to their plight.

"I think you will see a gradual tightening of control leading up to the Olympics," Nettleton told BP. "I have heard from Christian folks in Beijing that they are not really looking forward to the Olympics at all because they expect that to be a time of very intense control of any type of activity that would be an embarrassment to the Chinese government. ... They are very intent on not allowing anything that would be an embarrassment to them to happen during that Olympic time while the eyes of the world will be on them."

Though the Olympics may be a tough evangelism setting for Chinese Christians, Nettleton said it will be a tremendous opportunity for Christians from other countries to enter and spread the Gospel without much trouble. He even predicted Christians from around the world could take a suitcase of Bibles to China and distribute them without government intervention because Chinese officials will not want the negative international attention such a rebuke would bring.

"In fact, when I first heard that the Olympics were going to be in Beijing, that was my first thought: What a great opportunity for Christians from around the world to support our brothers and sisters there by carrying in Bibles, carrying in Christian literature and things that they need," Nettleton said.


For more information about the persecuted church in China and other parts of the world, visit the Voice of the Martyrs website at www.persecution.com.

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