Religious liberty in China 'rapidly deteriorating'

WASHINGTON (BP) -- The persecution of Christians in China has increased, and is expected to continue to do so, as a result of a dramatic policy change by the communist government, according to the human rights organization China Aid.

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In its annual report released March 2, China Aid said Beijing's shift in how it seeks to manage religion and the adoption of that new policy by government agencies resulted in expanded persecution of individual Christians and greater oppression of unregistered house churches in 2016. Conditions for Christians in the world's most populous country are expected to deteriorate further this year, the non-profit organization reported.

Chinese President Xi Jinping signaled the shift when he stressed during an April 2016 speech the significance of religions "persistently following the path of Sinicization," according to the report. China Aid has described "Sinicization" as the effort to "transform Christian theology into a doctrine that aligns with the core values of socialism and so-called Chinese characteristics." Beijing formerly guided "religion and socialism to mutually adapt," China Aid reported.

"The key findings of what happened last year and the reports from these first two months of 2017 have shown the situation of religious freedom is rapidly deteriorating," said Bob Fu, president of China Aid, which promotes religious liberty and the rule of law in the communist giant. "We call upon both the persecuted faithful in China and the international community to be increasingly vigilant and persevere in facing this harsher year."

Travis Wussow, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission's general counsel and vice president for public policy, expressed alarm on behalf of Southern Baptists.

The ERLC "has been concerned about the signs of increasing persecution of the church in China over the last two years," Wussow said. "China Aid's new report highlights the systematic approach the Chinese government has taken to take control of the church and its doctrine.

"We join in praying for our persecuted brothers and sisters," Wussow said in written comments for Baptist Press, "and at the same time, we are hopeful that the Trump administration will pressure the Chinese government to provide its citizens with true religious freedom."

China Aid's report included the following increases in recorded persecution from 2015 to 2016:

-- Cases of persecution grew by 20 percent.

-- The number of Christians who were detained mushroomed by 148 percent.

-- The number of Christians who were sentenced increased by 30 percent.

-- The number of Christians abused rose by 70 percent.

Following Xi's speech in April, China's State Administration of Religious Affairs implemented the change in religious management by issuing a revised draft of rules on religion in September, according to China Aid. Local governments adopted laws and regulations instituting the new draft rules.

Among the draft regulations released in September, they: (1) Ban preaching, "organizing religious activities" and instituting religious sites at schools; (2) designate all unapproved activities by unregistered house churches as illegal; (3) require local and provincial religious departments to approve the establishment of a religious site; (4) bar the creation of seminaries by house churches or overseas congregations; and (5) prohibit the reception of unapproved gifts from outside China.

The effects last year of the Communist Party's approach to religion, according to China Aid, included:

-- Raids on and closings of unregistered house churches;

-- The demolition of church buildings or removal of crosses from their buildings;

-- A crackdown on religion, as well as the suppression of evangelism, on college campuses;

-- The detention of Christian human rights lawyers.

China is among 10 countries the U.S. State Department has designated as "countries of particular concern." That designation is reserved for governments that commit or tolerate "systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom."

The ERLC presented Fu with the John Leland Religious Liberty Award for 2007. The award is named for the Baptist preacher of the late 1700s and early 1800s who strongly advocated for religious freedom and helped secure it in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Before moving into his current position, Wussow served in the Middle East as the ERLC's director of international justice and religious liberty.

ChinaAid's 2017 report may be accessed at https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BwO5hRHaKWdOQWUwYTdDcnZSTnc/view.

Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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