CNS News (Link) - Patrick Goodenough (December 8, 2010)
China reportedly has launched a new crackdown on “house churches,” Protestant congregations that do not belong to the country’s state-sanctioned, “patriotic” church organization.
In an ominous development reported by the China Aid Association (CAA), a U.S.-based group that advocates for Chinese Christians, authorities allegedly have labeled the house church movement a “cult.”
Beijing used the same term when it outlawed the Falun Gong meditation movement in 1999, a move that ushered in a major, ongoing crackdown against the Falun Gong that has brought China worldwide censure.
Citing secret information “from more than one reliable source” inside China, CAA said Tuesday the campaign against house churches ordered by the Communist Party Politburo was launched on December 1.
Chinese security officials “have been notified to collect information about house churches throughout the country and turn these reports in to their superiors,” it said. “A long ‘blacklist’ of church leaders and influential believers reportedly has been drawn up.”
The Pew Research Center estimated in 2007 that up to 70 million Chinese believers worship in unregistered house churches. By comparison, China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) last June put at 16 million the “official” Protestant population – members of the state-approved Three Self-Patriotic Movement (TSPM).
(China similarly tries to channel Catholic observances through a state-controlled Catholic “patriotic” organization, which reports some five million members. An estimated 12 million more Roman Catholics loyal to the Pope – rather than a Beijing-appointed leadership – meet in unapproved congregations.)
The TSPM’s name derives from the doctrine that the church should resist outside influences through promotion the three “selfs” of self-governance, self-support and self-propagation.
Christian groups working among Chinese Christians attribute reluctance to register with the state-sanctioned body, which celebrated its 60th anniversary last September, largely to theological concerns. While many TSPM members are sincere believers, they say, leaders like the TSPM’s leading theologian, Bishop Ting Kuang-hsun, have promoted the notion that loyalty to the state should take precedence over belief in Christ.
The U.S. State Department and some religious freedom monitoring groups in recent years reported an apparent softening in Beijing’s approach towards the house church movement.
In its most recent report on international religious freedom, for instance, the State Department cited some cases of serious harassment and prosecutions of house church believers in some parts of China but also noted an increase in “public discussion of house churches in official media and at academic conferences.”
The report pointed out that since 2005 SARA has publicly acknowledged that groups of relatives or friends have the right to meet at home for worship, prayer and Bible study without registering with the government, although it added that respect for that policy was uneven across local, county and provincial levels.
CAA on Tuesday also alluded to the apparently improving trend, saying the government in recent years “stepped back from its previous hostility toward and adamant opposition to the house church movement, leading many Christians in China and overseas to believe that these unregistered congregations could win official sanction without having to join [the TSPM].”
It said the new anti-house church drive “harks back to the previous era of hostilities and often brutal government persecution” which drove millions of believers underground.
The founder and president of the Midland, Texas-based CAA, Bob Fu, was himself a house-church pastor who faced harassment and detention before he and his wife moved as refugees to the U.S. in 1996.
CAA said that the new Politburo directive gave “specious” reasons why the house church movement should be regarded as a cult, including advocacy and promotion of “the Christianization of China,” of unity among all churches in China and unity between the church in China and churches worldwide.
“The labeling of Chinese house churches as a cult could have serious implications and represents a major step backwards in the thawing of relations in recent years between the Beijing regime and the vast house church network,” CAA said.
It recalled how the government had turned public opinion in China against the Falun Gong by portraying a non-violent, apolitical movement as a dangerous “cult.”
Falun Gong sources cited by the State Department estimate that at least 6,000 practitioners have been sentenced to prison terms since the 1999 cult ruling while more than 100,000 practitioners had been sentenced to terms in “reform through labor” camps.
The reported move against house church Christians comes at a time China’s human rights record is back in the international spotlight, given the decision to award this year’s Nobel peace prize to an imprisoned Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo.
Beijing reacted angrily to the decision and human rights monitors have reported that a number of people associated with Liu have been prevented from traveling to attend the event in Oslo on Friday. His wife has been under house arrest since the award decision was announced in October.
China has also urged other governments not to attend the ceremony, and the Nobel prize committee reported Tuesday that China and 18 other countries have declined invitations while 44 countries said they would be represented at the ceremony.
Those listed as staying away are Russia, Iran, Cuba, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Colombia, Tunisia, Serbia, Iraq, Vietnam, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Egypt, Ukraine and Morocco. †