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An idolatrous state tries to smother the church

New report details China’s control of religious institutions


Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks in Beijing on Dec. 6, 2022. Pang Xinglei/Xinhua via Associated Press

An idolatrous state tries to smother the church
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China’s government “exercises comprehensive and extensive control over religion … through a complex web of state laws, regulations, and policies,” according to a new report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). As prayerful citizens of the global church, Christians need to understand, and challenge, government attempts to control institutional aspects of religious life.

Beijing uses multiple mechanisms to control religion, including oversight bodies such as the State Administration for Religious Affairs and the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department. The purpose of such organizations is to ensure that the religious content of “approved” houses of worship is patriotic, promotes national unity, and is in line with the messages of President Xi. USCIRF reports that Article 15 of China’s Measures on the Administration of Religious Groups law demands the “political reliability” of religious leaders.

China formally recognizes five religions (Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Islam) and formally oversees approved religious practice through seven state-backed associations such as the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement, and the Islamic Association of China.

One specific way that China’s Communists attempt to shape religion is by controlling leadership selection. For example, the Chinese government has outlawed the Dalai Lama and interfered in the selection process of senior Tibetan Buddhist leadership. George Weigel has criticized the Chinese government’s demand to pre-approve and pre-select Chinese Catholic leaders. Beijing wants religious leaders who will publicly avow socialist dogma and support the Communist Party. These days, the Vatican seems willing to defer to China’s Communist Party on the choice of church leaders.

Another mechanism of control is to shape theology and practice through the “sinicizing” of religion. USCIRF and the U.S. State Department report that each of China’s major religious organizations recently published five-year work plans to “sinicize [supposedly to make authentically Chinese] the interpretation of religious doctrines, sermons, rituals, and architectural styles of places of worship in order to conform to the CCP’s ideological and policy requirements.”

In reality, that means everything from rewriting Scripture to placing photos of Mao and President Xi in houses of worship, a practice that is seen as idolatrous by Muslims and others. Of course, according to PRC policy all houses of worship must be duly registered and all religious leadership licensed by the state.

Beijing wants religious leaders who will publicly avow socialist dogma and support the Communist Party.

Government control of religion in China undermines not just the religious freedom of individual adherents, but also the important role that houses of worship and faith-based organizations play in society. Religious institutions should be free to operate their internal affairs in ways consistent with their fundamental convictions. As a recent report led by Paul Marshall argues, “religious institutions are a genuine public good. ... [S]ecuring their freedom can be a critical antidote to the social divisions rampant around the world.”

The Chinese government rejects the idea that religious freedom is an antidote to “social division.” Indeed, as Ben Rogers chronicles in his new book, The China Nexus: Thirty Years in and Around the Chinese Communist Party’s Tyranny, the fact that religious people and organizations have an allegiance to something higher than the Communist Party is contrary to the Communist view of enforced loyalty. That is why a December 2021 report by Chinese government agencies decried any connection to co-religionists outside of China as “foreign infiltration activities through using religion.”

As Christians, we believe in a Church that transcends nationality: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). We recognize that earthly government has an important role in promoting security and justice (Romans 13), but that government is to operate within the boundaries that God has established. An idolatrous government and an idolatrous ideology will find the faith and organization of religious people to be a direct challenge to its authority.

Perhaps most notoriously, China’s government is so sure of itself that it is conducting ethnic cleansing of its Uighur Muslim minority, with little consequence from the outside world. So, what is to be done?

Christians should pray that the religious renewal happening among China’s house churches will spread, and that God will change the hearts of China’s leaders. Christians should push our government officials to challenge the Chinese model of authoritarian tyranny not only because it is wrong but also because it sets an example for thuggery in places like Venezuela, Iran, and Nicaragua.

National leaders, including President Biden, need to reconsider the direct link between religious freedom and national security, because for some reason, America’s greatest security threats—Russia, China, North Korea, Iran—all see religious freedom as detrimental to their own interests. A 21st century approach to dealing with the crimes of the Chinese government must include honesty about its attacks on the religious freedom and identity of its citizens.


Eric Patterson

Eric Patterson is president of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, D.C., and past dean of the School of Government at Regent University. He is the author or editor of 15 books, including Just American Wars, Politics in a Religious World, and Ending Wars Well.


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