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.
"It would mean more if Beijing residents are able to access the Bible and other religious literature in a public bookstore, and if Chinese citizens could choose their places of worship without being afraid of harassment, being arrested or sent to labor camps," added Fu, who said Bush's appeal to Chinese officials on religious freedom and human rights was mostly for the benefit of his domestic critics.
One of Fu's recommended destinations for Bush was the Shou Wang house church in western Beijing, where 600 to 700 people attend three services each Sunday. Worshipers ride an elevator to the eighth floor of a commercial office building, take seats in a nondescript room with a piano and a simple brown cross, and begin with a hymn.
"I don't care if this is a legal church or an illegal one," said Kong Hong, 27, a guitar player sporting a tattoo and a ponytail who said he had learned about Shou Wang from a friend.
"In China, there are so many things the government doesn't allow. But that doesn't mean that everything banned is bad," Kong said, admiring the choir. "Everyone should ask themselves what they truly believe in. We're all adults. We have the ability to decide what we believe in, to judge what is right or wrong. People won't listen just because the government says so."
In May, representatives from the Office of Nationality, Religion and Overseas Chinese Affairs showed up at Shou Wang, announced that the service was an illegal assembly and took down worshipers' names, employers and cellphone numbers, a church leader said. Shortly afterward, church members received phone calls from both religious officials and their state-controlled work units ordering them to stop attending the church. Most refused.
"In a way, it's a kind of progress that we are still able to operate," said Yuan Ling, one congregant. "It shows that the government is worried about its international image."
Officials object to unsanctioned proselytizing and are worried about contact between house churches and Western religious leaders. Several Western evangelists and church leaders have been denied visas in the last month or two, activists said. House church members in Beijing say they have been pressured by the government to avoid talking with foreign reporters.
Yu Jie, who became a dissident in 1989 and is a member of a 30-person house church, said the efforts of the crackdown has been limited for large churches.
"For some big house churches in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, the government might not push too hard because they're afraid of a backlash or creating an influential news story," Yu said. "But for small house churches, including many in the countryside, the crackdown is very serious."
Shou Wang has not been the only target. Several Beijing seminaries have been shuttered on the grounds that they were not registered with the Three-Self Church, activists said.
At another large house church called the Gospel Church, officials recently detained and questioned one of its leaders, Gao Zhen. In June, police tried to break up a meeting of the Maizi house church but got the location wrong. That night, worshipers at Maizi split into eight different groups to avoid detection. They now gather in various apartments.
Another church known as City Revival was shut down; one of its leaders was arrested in early May and released in June.
"An important reason for the crackdown is the Olympics. This year, Chinese leaders face more pressure from outside groups, house churches and even ordinary individual citizens," said Fan Yafeng, a law professor at the Institute of Law at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and a leader of the 80-member Sina house church. "The Public Security Bureau always misuses its power. . . . They have lost their humanity."
"In the Olympic Village, you can find religious freedom. Maybe some foreigners can worship," Fan said. "But I tell you, the real crisis in China now is that there are no reformers left. The power struggle among the leadership is for power, not reform. To have real political reform, they would lose their power."
Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.