7/18/97 Religious freedom growing, say Chinese; not so, say others

WASHINGTON (BP)--There is neither religious persecution nor an underground church in China, but there is increasing religious freedom, a Chinese government/religious delegation said in a mid-July visit to Washington.

Such claims do not match reality, representatives of an evangelical and a human rights organization responded.

Ye Xiaowen, director-general of China's Bureau of Religious Affairs, and other members of the delegation defended the communist power's handling of religion in a July 15 news briefing at the Chinese embassy and in a July 16 meeting at the Washington offices of the National Association of Evangelicals.

Religious believers in China are experiencing a "golden time," Ye said through a translator at the embassy briefing, according to The Washington Times. "Every two days, three churches are restored."

China's Bureau of Religious Affairs, established by new religious laws in 1994, does not "control" religion but is a go-between for it and the overwhelming number of nonbelievers among China's 1.2 billion citizens, he said, according to The Times.

When NAE presented Ye with a list of 11 Chinese Christian leaders under arrest or imprisoned, Ye said the men are criminals and denied there is religious persecution.

Members of the delegation denied there is an underground church in the world's largest country. "If 20 or 100 people conduct a religious activity and don't let people know, this is impossible in China," said Deng Fucun, general secretary of the Three-self Patriotic Movement, according to The Times. The Three-self movement is the lone Protestant denomination sanctioned by the Chinese government.

Deng also said 19 million Bibles have been printed in China since 1980, The Times reported.

There is not only a widespread underground Christian network in China, but the government has stepped up its persecution of the movement, said a spokesman for the Washington-based Freedom House's Puebla Program on Religious Freedom.

"Christian persecution is increasing all over China," said Freedom House's Nina Shea, according to The Times.

A Freedom House fact-finding mission to China in late May reported the government not only is stepping up efforts to close churches it does not sanction but, in a new strategy, is aggressively pursuing and arresting house church leaders. Ninety percent of the underground Protestant church members interviewed during the two-week trip said the repression, which intensified last summer, is the worst since the early 1980s, the team reported.

Despite the Chinese regime's efforts, both registered and unregistered churches are experiencing explosive growth, it was reported. Representatives of both registered and unregistered, Catholic and Protestant churches reported a three- to fourfold increase in membership since 1990 and a more than tenfold increase since 1980, the Freedom House team said. Christians in China total about 40 to 60 million, Freedom House estimates. The government says there are 10 million Protestants and 4 million Catholics in China, The Times reported.

While she agreed China is restoring and constructing church buildings, as well as printing Bibles, Shea said the government's purpose is to control the spread of religion, The Times reported.

Rich Cizik, policy analyst for NAE's Washington office, told Baptist Press he presented Ye with the list of Chinese Christian leaders under arrest or imprisoned, as well as seven instances of persecution in the last 16 months. Among those in prison is Xu Yongze, leader of the New Birth house-church group and perhaps the most important underground Protestant leader. He was arrested in March and reportedly has been sentenced to execution.

"He said, 'These individuals are not in prison because of their faith but because they are criminals. We do not engage in religious persecution.' And so the meeting went," Cizik said.

There were no surprises in the two-hour exchange he described as noninflammatory.

"We brought up, for example, time and again the house-church movement and our concerns for that movement of believers and pointed out to the director we regard registration to be an undue imposition of government control upon the church," Cizik said. "And in that case, his response was that the social disorder from the cultural revolution necessitates that there be these controls."

Cizik said he told Ye "the whole debate over most-favored-nation status for China was animated by the concern of millions of Christians for religious freedom in China. ... It simply is not possible for our two nations to have normal relations if there continues to be what we regard to be the suppression of the church and persecution of its leaders."

Ye indicated he would investigate NAE's concerns about each of the leaders being held by the governments, Cizik said.

A coalition of Christian organizations and other groups lobbied Congress this year to block the renewal of MFN status to China, but the effort failed in both houses.

NAE staff members accepted a general invitation from the delegation to visit China and observe, Cizik said.

The problem is such visitors "are shown what the Chinese government wants them to see and not the laogai, the prison camps, nor are they allowed to interview people in these camps," Cizik said.

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