WASHINGTON — Though it was hoped that the Olympic Games would bring about an opening on religious freedom and human rights in China, the opposite seems to have occurred.
That’s according to observers and religious freedom activists.
“Instead of improvements in conditions for religious freedom and other human rights, we’ve seen broad efforts to crack down on and control religious activity,” Nina Shea, senior fellow with the Center for Religious Freedom, told the Congressional Task Force for International Religious Freedom June 20.
Steve Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute, believes that the Chinese government will do anything to avoid “embarrassments” from its own population.
“With the Olympics, the government wants to put its best foot forward,” said Mosher. “So no demonstrations can occur. No dissidents will be allowed to talk to foreign journalists. No Catholic bishops or priests from the underground will speak. There has been a tightening across the country. Hundreds of missionaries have been expelled.”
Efforts earlier this year to rein in Tibetan monks are the most public repressive moves by the Chinese state. But other repressive actions have taken place against Catholics, Protestants, Muslim Uighurs and Falun Gong practitioners. “Some of these efforts clearly have been tied to the preparations for the Olympics, not least because government and state-allied religious officials fear that contact with foreign co-religionists could encourage a flowering of religious practice that is not sanctioned or controlled by the state,” said Shea.
It is believed that there are 12 million Catholics and 70 million Protestants in the People’s Republic of China. Most are believed to be a part of the underground Catholic Church or Protestant “house churches.”
During the past year, Catholics and Protestants who refused to register with the government-sanctioned religious groups continued to face serious penalties, arrest, detention or harassment.
More than 600 Protestants were arrested or detained, 38 of whom were given sentences of more than one year. There are approximately 35 underground bishops of the Catholic Church in prison, under house arrest or in hiding — some for decades. Priests and nuns face similar harassment.
“Bishop Su Zhimin, the underground Bishop of Baoding, Hebei, was arrested in 1996, escaped, and rearrested in 1997,” said Joseph Kung, head of the Cardinal Kung Foundation in Stamford, Conn. “There has been no news on this bishop for many years. Bishop An Shuxin, the underground auxiliary bishop of Baoding, Hebei, was arrested in 1996. He was released Aug. 24, 2006, after more than 10 years confinement in prison.”
Kung’s own uncle, Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei, was bishop of Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, and a formidable leader in the Catholic community in China when the communists took over in 1949. He later became bishop of Shanghai but was jailed from 1955 to 1985.
He was then placed under house arrest until being allowed to leave for the United States for medical treatment in 1987. Meanwhile, Pope John Paul II created him cardinal in 1979 in pectore (in secret).
Other Catholic bishops who are imprisoned with their whereabouts unknown include Bishop Shi Enxiang of Yixian, Hebei Province, arrested in 2001 and Auxiliary Bishop Yao Liang of Xiwanzi, Hebei, arrested in 2005, released, and re-arrested in 2006.
Another distressing situation is the number of bishops who have died in prison — with their cause of death unknown: Bishop Gao Kexian of Yantai, Shandong, arrested in 1999 and died in jail January 2005, and Bishop Han Dingxiang of Yong Nian, Hebei, arrested in December 1999 and held in an unknown place.
“Last year, he suddenly died and was buried in six hours, without allowing his family to see him,” said Kung. “It was all very suspicious. Why should they do this? I inquired into his death through the State Department and other human rights organizations, but the Chinese government gave no reply.”
Torture, secret trials and execution are still very much in use in China, despite international pressure to stop, activists say.
“There are 10,000 to 15,000 executions in China each year,” said Mosher. “This is more than all the executions around the world combined. All dissidents are routinely tortured and put through secret trials. The government rules by force and the threat of force.”
Observers are wondering how this moment can be used to pressure China for an increase in religious freedom. It is likely that some of the foreign tourists coming to the country may engage in some kind of demonstration.
About such protesters, Mosher said, “They will be deported from the country immediately, though not tortured. The Chinese government has said that no religious literature can be handed out, though after international criticism, they are allowing athletes to bring personal Bibles.”
Representatives at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the Chinese Consulate declined to respond to accusations, saying they were not authorized to speak to such matters. Officials in China failed to respond to phone and e-mail requests from the Register.
But what explains China’s fear of religious freedom?
“I think that they are afraid of religious freedom because the allegiance to the Catholic Church is not to government but to the Holy Father. They are afraid of what happened in Poland,” said Kung. “But they are wrong. John Paul II wrote that the faithful, though Catholic, love China. He told the government not to be afraid, because Catholics would be good citizens. At the moment, for the underground — all they want is freedom to practice their faith. They have no political ambition.”
Pope Benedict XVI wrote a letter to Chinese Catholics on May 27, 2007, where he insisted on “authentic religious freedom,” the Holy See’s right to freely appoint bishops, and all bishops being in communion with each other and the Pope.
In a June 27 ad limina address to the bishops of Hong Kong and Macao, Pope Benedict expressed his hope that bishops from mainland China will “come to Rome on pilgrimage to the tombs of the apostles Peter and Paul, as a sign of communion with the Successor of Peter and the Universal Church.”
Sabrina Arena Ferrisi
is based in Larchmont, New York.