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Christianity growing in China under watchful eye, Land says

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The Christian faith is alive and well in China, Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Richard Land told the SBC entity’s trustees during their Sept. 13-14 meeting in Nashville.

He had returned Aug. 28 from a two-week trip to China as a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, during which he logged more than 21,000 air miles.

As a member of the U.S. commission focusing on international religious liberty issues, Land and other USCIRF members met with religious leaders and government officials, including the vice premier of China, during their visit to China.

The high-level series of meetings had been in the making for several years, at the request of President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Land said. The visit was agreed to by the United States and China in the December 2002 U.S-China bilateral human rights dialogue. The USCIRF delegation had meetings in the Chinese cities of Beijing, Chengdu, Kashgar, Urumqi, Lhasa and Shanghai.

The USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan federal commission that advises the president, secretary of state and Congress on how to promote religious freedom and related human rights around the world. It was created by the U.S. Congress in the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA). It consists of nine appointed commissioners.

The ERLC was instrumental in the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998, which mandated the creation of a commission on religious liberty within the U.S. State Department, Land said. Religious freedom and freedom of conscience for matters of worship were issues being overlooked by the human rights movement and were for the most part being “ignored and left behind the door when our State Department and others were dealing with human rights issues,” he continued.

Land said the establishment of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has sensitized a whole segment of the Foreign Service Corps to the issue of religious liberty. “They have become conversant with this issue in a way they never would have before,” Land said. “We are seeing more and more sympathy on the part of foreign service officers in the State Department to this issue.”

He explained that every U.S. embassy around the globe now has to have a person responsible for submitting a report on the state of religious freedom in the country where they serve. “It is no longer everybody’s responsibility; it is somebody’s responsibility,” he said. Land was first appointed to the commission in 2001 by President Bush, and the president reappointed him to a second term in 2003. After his term expired in 2004, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist tapped Land to join the panel again earlier this year as a senatorial appointee.

Land said even the staff members of the U.S. commission were amazed at the material wealth being generated by China’s robust economy. He said the Chinese economy was currently the fourth-largest in the world and is expected to be the largest economy within 20 years.

“The economic miracle that is China is real. No country in the history of the world has managed to do what they have done since 1988. Since that year, they have had a growth in Gross National Product of at least 9 percent every year. If the Chinese continue that rate of growth and the U.S. continues a healthy rate of growth, they will overtake us in 2025,” Land said, explaining China will still be a far poorer country per capita because there are 1.5 billion Chinese compared to 285 million Americans.

“Even the Communist officials are amazed at what has happened. None of them ever expected to see the degree of material wealth that the economy of China has generated in the last two decades,” Land said.

Yet Land said the country’s religious climate is not as vibrant — at least not publicly. The commissioners held official meetings with Buddhists, Daoists, Muslims, Catholics and Protestants as they crisscrossed the country. Land said while the Chinese government is more accommodating to people of faith than in the past — the government has built religious structures and seminaries — those who want to worship openly must register with the state. He said there are an estimated five times more Christians who decline to register than those who actually do register.

“The reason many do not register is that they are unwilling to have the government regulate what they do,” Land said. “Yet there is more space for the Christian church,” he added, saying, “There is a widening zone of toleration for religious groups since China’s Cultural Revolution.”

Interestingly, Land said, the Chinese government is printing 3 million Bibles a year and allowing them to be distributed in China. This is a very promising development, he said. “If you let the Bible loose it will defend itself,” Land said, noting that Chinese translations of the Bible are more available to Chinese citizens than ever before.

“There is more space for the Christian faith in China — even controlled by the state — than there ever was in the Soviet Union or there used to be in China,” Land acknowledged.

“Yet the government continues to define what constitutes a religion. Unless you fit within the government’s definition, you’re not a recognized religion,” Land said. Any participants in religious activity not under the auspices of the sanctioning state bodies can be arrested and have their buildings destroyed, he pointed out.

While Land and the others with the USCIRF were surprised at the increased degree of space available to practice personal religious belief in China, he said it was “still a cage, maybe a gilded cage, but it is still a cage” for citizens there who want to exercise their faith. Religious freedom means there is no cage, he said, explaining he has the “distinct feeling that the Chinese government is extremely worried about religion in China.” There are between 80 and 100 million Christians in China, Land said, telling of a noticeable receptivity to spiritual things among young Chinese. “This is despite the fact that if you want to get to the top of Chinese society you have to be a member of the Communist Party, which means you have to be an atheist,” he explained.

“There is tremendous hunger and discussion about spiritual things on college campuses,” Land continued. “The government is absolutely terrified about religion and the growth of religion. They understand they can’t stamp it out by persecution so they are trying to control it.” They don’t want anybody meeting for any reason unless they know what the meeting is about, Land said.

Those Christians who decline to register are interested in freedom, not mere toleration by the government, Land said. “Despite the growth in registered churches, there is a vibrancy and growth and evangelism and a fervor among the unregistered Christians that can’t be matched in the registered churches,” he said.

The ERLC board of trustees held their annual meeting September 13-14 in Nashville.

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  • Dwayne Hastings