Several years ago during a visit to the United States, President Xi Jinping was interviewed by a Chinese national living in the United States. After the interview, Mr. Xi asked a single question of this reporter — not about his family, not about his studies, not about whether he enjoyed living in America — the one question he asked was “Why do so many Chinese students studying in the United States become Christians?”
Whatever was behind that question, religious freedom conditions in China have not improved because of it. Quite the opposite, in fact, as Mr. Xi has personally launched efforts to “sinacize religion,” the central government has issued commands to each provincial party secretary, making them responsible for bringing religion in line with Communist Party ideology. On Thursday, I chaired a hearing of the House global human rights subcommittee on this very matter — China’s war on
Christianity and other faiths.
The Chinese government is an equal opportunity abuser of religious freedom, all religious communities in China — Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong, Daoists, Muslims and Christians — have been subject to unacceptable religious freedom restrictions and persecutions including torture for decades.
On a trip to China in 1994, I had the awesome privilege of meeting with Bishop Su Zhimin, a leader of the underground Catholic Church. Bishop Su’s body bore witness to the brutality of China’s Communist Party. He was beaten, starved and tortured for his faith and spent some 40 years in prison. Yet, he prayed not just for the persecuted church, but for the conversion of those who hate, torture and kill.
Unfortunately, only couple years later Bishop Su was arrested again and disappeared. He has not been heard from since.
Over the past year, the Chinese government has instigated the most severe crackdown on religious activities since the Cultural Revolution. Regulations on religious affairs issued in February tightened restrictions, and new draft regulations are being circulated to clamp down on religious expression online. Churches, mosques and temples have been demolished, crosses destroyed, children are prohibited from attending services, and surveillance cameras are being installed in churches.
Xi Jinping talks about realizing the “China Dream” — but when Bibles are burned, when a simple prayer over a meal in public may be considered an illegal religious gathering and when over a million Uyghur and Kazakh Muslims are interned in “re-education camps” and forced to renounce their faith — that dream is a nightmare.
Much in the news lately has been the targeting of Christians in China. The “sinacization campaign” has affected both state-controlled and unregistered churches — Protestant and Catholic. Clergy remain in prison and the human rights lawyers who defend them have been jailed, disappeared or tortured into silence.
Xi Jinping views the fast-growing and vibrant Christian churches, particularly the Protestant “house church” movement that does not belong to the state-sanctioned Protestant entities, as a threat to the dominance of the Chinese Communist Party. There is a nationwide campaign underway to forcibly close many of these churches.
Underground Catholics — meaning those who do not belong to the state-sanctioned Catholic Patriotic Association — have faced tremendous persecution and efforts to forcibly close underground parishes expanded this year. China’s Ethnic and Religion Bureau told the state propaganda organ Global Times in April that “activities in illegally-built parishes will be prohibited.”
Recent reports indicate that a deal has been struck by the Holy See and the Chinese government whereby the pope will have a veto over Chinese government-approved candidates to be ordained as bishops. In exchange, seven previously excommunicated bishops, ordained without papal mandate and appointed by the Chinese government, will be welcomed back into full communion with Rome.
Already, the Vatican has asked two legitimate bishops to step aside to make way for two formerly excommunicated bishops. Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, has questioned whether Vatican officials making these decisions “know what true suffering is.”
The deal is reportedly provisional and full details are yet unknown. The devil is always in the details — including the fate of 30 underground bishops and Holy See relations with Taiwan — but with all the efforts underway to forcibly “sinacize religion,” it certainly seems an odd time to strike a deal with Xi Jinping’s China. I hope and pray this agreement will bring true religious freedom for Catholics in China, who have suffered so much to maintain their faith.
U.S.-China tensions are high at the moment on many fronts and the Chinese government presumably is searching for ways to reduce — not escalate — them. Taking a hammer and sickle to the cross or jailing as many as a million Uighur Muslims will only ensure a tougher China policy, one with widespread, bipartisan and even global support.
• Chris Smith, a Republican U.S. representative for New Jersey, is the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Global Human Rights.