Beijing Curbs Religious Rights

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 10, 2008

BEIJING -- China describes itself as a religiously tolerant society, one that allows its citizens to worship freely. This week, per Olympic tradition, it is extending that same freedom to athletes in the form of worship rooms in the Olympic Village, each dedicated for the world's major religions.

Worshipers also have at their disposal dozens of foreign clerics; 10,000 English-Chinese Bibles emblazoned with the Olympics logo; and an electric organ, for Catholics.

But religious freedom does not extend beyond the heavily secured perimeter fence of the Olympic Green.

In this Olympic year, government officials have sharply tightened restrictions on religion, arresting leaders of unregistered "house churches," stepping up harassment of congregations, denying visas to foreign missionaries and shutting down places of worship, church members and religious activists said.

The crackdown is part of a security campaign that has targeted human rights advocates, domestic dissidents and petitioners -- anyone who might interfere with the ruling Communist Party's efforts to showcase China as a harmonious society in which the government maintains a firm grip on power.

"How can this be called a harmonious society? If it's harmonious, we'd have a right to stay in Beijing and attend the Olympics," said Zhang Mingxuan, a house church pastor and activist who was kicked out of the capital by police recently, temporarily detained Sunday and then arrested again by public security police in Henan province Thursday.

Officially, China allows worship only at registered churches belonging to the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, a government-controlled organization of about 25 million members founded in the 1950s to free China from foreign funds and foreign influence. Beijing has about 30 official Protestant and Catholic churches.

But many members of China's rapidly growing Christian community prefer to worship in unofficial or underground churches where there are no restrictions on teaching children and where leaders are not controlled by the Communist Party. House church membership ranges from 50 million to 100 million nationwide, activists say, with as many as 1,000 unregistered churches in Beijing that include tiny congregations that meet in people's bedrooms.

President Bush drew attention to house churches this past week by expressing "deep concerns about religious freedom" in China, even while insisting the Olympics should not be politicized.

Bush plans to attend an official Three-Self Church, as he did during his last trip to China. Aides said that he wanted to attend a house church but that Chinese officials would not have allowed it. Some activists, however, have questioned whether Bush was simply concerned about offending the Chinese government. Two U.S. congressmen, Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) and Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), briefly visited a house church in June but were followed by state security officials.

Bob Fu, founder of the China Aid Association, a Christian rights organization based in Midland, Tex., met with Bush recently and urged him to attend a house church service. Fu said the religious accommodations at the Olympics were of limited value.

"To open religious services and make some literature available to a limited number of people during the Olympics is a welcome thing, but it means nothing in terms of religious freedom in China," Fu said.

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