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China intensifies persecution, report says; MFN battle begins

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Chinese government has intensified its repression of the underground church, a human rights organization reported recently on the same day attempts began in Congress to remove favorable trade status for the communist giant for just such activities.
Despite the Chinese regime’s efforts, both registered and unregistered churches are experiencing explosive growth, it was reported.
A fact-finding mission to China in late May reported the government not only is stepping up efforts to close churches it does not sanction but, in a new strategy, is aggressively pursuing and arresting house church leaders, according to Washington-based Freedom House’s Puebla Program on Religious Freedom. Ninety percent of the underground, Protestant church members interviewed during the two-week trip said the repression is the worst since the early 1980s, the three-member team reported.
“Some provinces are more repressive than others, but repression has intensified in all the provinces from where we received reports,” said Paul Marshall, an author and professor who led the team, in a written statement.
The Freedom House team interviewed 15 underground church members, including 12 who are pastors or leaders. It received reports from 17 of the 32 Chinese provinces.
Repression of underground churches began to increase after the Chinese government issued decrees in 1994 requiring the registration of religious groups. The persecution intensified last summer, Freedom House said in its June 3 report.
The underground church members reported new incidents of torture by beatings and by the use of cattle prods and electric drills, as well as other brutal treatment by Public Security Bureau police.
House-church members included these reports in interviews with the Freedom House team:
— The normal sentence for illegal church activities is three years of “re-education through labor” in a prison camp. Usually this sentence is given on the third offense for church members, often on the first offense for church leaders and normally for preachers found outside their home area.
— Eighty-five underground Christians were arrested in Henan Province in May.
— About 40 percent of inmates in Henan labor camps are imprisoned for house-church activities.
— In December in Hebei Province, several underground church members were detained at a train station for carrying imported Bibles and suffered crippling beatings from the security police. They still are unable to walk without aid.
— Joseph Fan Zhongliang, the underground Catholic bishop of Shanghai, is under virtual house arrest with police surveillance. In effect, he is prevented from meeting with foreigners.
The communist government’s approach toward Christians has fluctuated somewhat during the last three decades. While today’s persecution is not as brutal as it was from the mid-1960s through the mid- to late 1970s, it is harsher than it was in the 1980s.
The renewed repression is “absolutely tied to the collapse of the Soviet empire,” Puebla Program director Nina Shea told Baptist Press. The communist leaders “are terrified of Christian beliefs,” Shea said. “They are terrified of the notion of individual liberty and a transcendent God.
“They observed the role of the churches” in the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, she said. “They see the churches in their own borders as a threat. If China were to become Christian, the history of the 21st century would be totally different than if it remained atheistic.”
The government’s campaign, however, has produced the “greatest period of Christian growth in China’s history,” Shea said.
Representatives of both registered and unregistered, Catholic and Protestant churches reported a three- to fourfold increase in membership since 1990 and a more than tenfold increase since 1980, the Freedom House team said. Christians in China total about 60 million, Freedom House estimates. In many places in China, the line between sanctioned and underground churches is blurred, the team said. Members and even leaders move back and forth between the two, it reported.
“Ironically, the very campaign to eradicate the underground churches by the government may be spurring their growth,” said Marshall, author of “Their Blood Cries Out,” a new book on the persecution of Christians. “Underground leaders say the commitment required to practice one’s faith in China leads to a strong, disciplined and growing church.”
Henry Blackaby, director of prayer and spiritual awakening for the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board, also gave a similar report recently after a trip to Taiwan and Hong Kong. In a May 8 on-line conference on SBCNet, Blackaby said he visited with Christian leaders from mainland China and Hong Kong.
“Believers in China since 1949 have gone from about 1 million to estimates ranging from 50 to 100 million,” Blackaby wrote. “One church in China last year baptized 1,450 in one day. One small province in China baptized 60,000 last year.
“The leaders tell their people they’re to be salt and light wherever they go and whatever the cost. They’re doing it.”
The persecution of Christians — as well as the repression of other religions, violations of human rights and the government’s one-child population-control policy — has produced another result. A coalition of conservative Christians, human-rights activists and labor unions are mounting a campaign to call for an end to the United States’ granting of most-favored-nation status to China. MFN status provides China with the same trade rights possessed by nearly all other partners of the United States.
On June 3, bills were introduced in both the Senate and House of Representatives to end China’s MFN status. President Clinton asked May 29 for Congress to extend China’s trade status. Congress has 90 days from the president’s request to block MFN. It has been unable to do so in the past.
While most American business interests and economic conservatives favor MFN status for China, the AFL-CIO and many social conservatives oppose it. Among the organizations seeking revocation of MFN are the Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission, U.S. Catholic Conference, Focus on the Family and Family Research Council.
“Ending the most-favored-nation status we grant to China not only would send a powerful message, it also would end our own official indifference to tyranny,” wrote Christian Life Commission President Richard Land in a recent Dallas Morning News guest column reprinted in the May-June issue of Light, the agency’s ethics magazine. “Let’s end this charade in our relationship with China. Everything we have learned since the Tiananmen Square massacre tells us that China’s leadership will be ruthless with its citizens as long as it won’t suffer the consequences.”
On June 4, the anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, Christian Solidarity International-USA President James Jacobson expressed support for the anti-MFN effort in a Washington forum sponsored by FRC, The Washington Times reported. Other evangelical Christian leaders, however, have refused to take a position on MFN and have warned other Christians they should do the same, according to The Times.