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Freedom to conform

Chinese leaders say a new law protects religious liberty, but unregistered house churches seem to be facing repression as usual


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Along the road to new freedom, Chinese house-church Christians in northeastern Jilin Province have collided with a communist regime that may still be talking in doublespeak. Government officials proclaimed new freedom for China's religious believers in March, with an unprecedented law that granted rights to religious adherents-even underground house-church worshippers-if they conformed to certain registration requirements. But 600 Christians saw little of that new liberty when police rounded them up and ferried them to detention centers in May.

According to the Texas-based China Aid Association, the sweep against approximately 100 house churches began May 22, on a Sunday morning when authorities knew Christians would congregate for worship.

The raids continued over the next week, targeting homes in Jilin's provincial capital, Changchun. Officials released most of those arrested within two days after detaining and questioning them, but about 100 remain in custody-among them local university professors.

Christian influences are strong in Jilin, a province that borders North Korea, where a large group of Korean émigrés have churches. The professors were known to conduct secret Bible study groups, and several university students were also in the group taken into custody. What grabbed the authorities' attention, explained China Aid President Bob Fu, was their bold advertisement of faith. "These university students were actively engaging in evangelism, outreaching to the campus," he said. "They were found distributing gospel tracts."

By the end of June, Mr. Fu was still trying to scavenge information about where authorities were holding the remaining Changchun Christians, and how authorities were treating them. Mr. Fu, a former house-church leader himself, had to flee to the United States in 1996. He maintains a reliable network of contacts among house churches and even some connections to the Communist Party, though the Chinese government attempts to stymie his advocacy efforts.

The latest raid, Mr. Fu said, boils down to China's implementing the March 1 law, called the Provisions on Religious Affairs. "There's a national campaign to carry out this law," he said. The central government is coordinating with the Public Security Bureau and other agencies "to investigate and identify so-called unregistered and illegal religious groups. This is the first phase . . . we anticipate there will be more massive arrests in the months ahead."

Last year a May directive from the Communist Party instructed officials to actively spread Marxism and stamp out foreign "evil teachings"-a venomous term for religion (see "Evil Teachings," Dec. 4). The order led to a wave of arrests between June and August 2004. One victim was Beijing pastor Cai Zhuohua, whom authorities arrested last September and still have not released.

Mr. Fu said officials postponed his trial twice, most recently slating it to begin at the end of June. In custody since Sept. 11, Mr. Cai has endured torture with an electric shock baton and deteriorating health. For 45 days, as the weather turned frigid inside his cell, authorities did not give him warm clothes.

China announced a new 48-article law last November, promising its enactment in March. The state's Xinhua news agency reported the law was six years in the making and said it would be "a significant step forward in the protection of Chinese citizens' religious freedom." Instead, the law provides the government a smoother avenue for dictating how religion should be practiced, human-rights and legal experts say.

Some provisions appear to offer a glimmer of openness: The government now recognizes religious groups as social organizations, capable of providing needed social services once legalized. Before, officials viewed such groups as threats to society. Within a framework of legality, too, religious groups may publish their literature and hold cross-provincial meetings-another new "freedom." And, as long as religious groups, including previously secret house churches, register with the government, they will not be forced to join one of the five state-sanctioned patriotic religious associations.

But in the definition of legal lies the rub. In effect, the law augments the power of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, formerly known as the Religious Affairs Bureau. "They are the ones who arbitrarily define who is legal and illegal," Mr. Fu said.

Many underground groups fear to register in that climate and now are beginning to feel the heat for not registering. Among the 600 Jilin Christians taken into custody was 58-year-old Zhao Dianru, a leader of some 18 Changchun house churches. Authorities recently asked Mr. Zhao three times to join the state-sanctioned church, but he refused. About a dozen police and security officers raided his home. They confiscated 20 boxes of Christian books, according to China Aid, but released him on June 6.

Another house church in Shanxi Province faced a similar raid on May 13 during a theological training session for 30 of its leaders. Officials arrested the host pastor, Zhang Guangmin, and released him after 15 days but kept another elder until mid-June. Both leaders refused to join the government's Three-Self Patriotic Movement, the official Protestant church.

"Already the Department of National Security and these agencies have started meetings negotiating with house-church groups, encouraging them to register," Mr. Fu said. The officials invite Christians for quiet chats over coffee and offer assurances, such as, "We want to make sure there's no illegal activity-we want to protect you. Be careful of what you write and what you say." But now, groups who refuse the "protection" of the March law stand to be prosecuted under it.

What remains unknown is how China will apply the law across different locales. Prohibitions against unregistered churches have always been enforced region by region, with some provinces enjoying greater freedom than others. In all, an estimated 30 million Protestants and 5 million Catholics are believed members of unofficial house churches.

"The regulations seem to imply much less space for house churches," said Mickey Spiegel, a senior researcher on Asia at Human Rights Watch. Still, they are "very, very loose. They're almost impossible to interpret."

But has a fresh crackdown begun this year? Ms. Spiegel said it is hard to identify a trend among scattered reports of raids and arrests. About the only certainty is that state repression has not eased-"not by any stretch of the imagination." For underground Christians, these early portents are troubling.

Major arrests of Christians

April 2004: 100 Christians in Heilongjiang arrested.

June 2004: 100 members of the 5-million-strong China Gospel Fellowship arrested in Hubei Province. Woman in Guizhou tortured to death in police custody after distributing Bibles.

July 2004: 100 Christians arrested in Xinjiang Province.

August 2004: 100 arrested in Henan Province. Some 18 pastors remained in custody as of May 2005.

September 2004: Beijing pastor Cai Zhuohua arrested. Still awaits trial. Eight Catholic priests and two seminarians arrested in Hebei.

April 2005: A bishop and two priests arrested.

May 2005: 600 house-church Christians in Jilin arrested in a raid on about 100 churches. Near the end of June, about 100 remained in custody.

Sources: China Aid Association, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom


Priya Abraham Priya is a former WORLD reporter.

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