National Catholic Register


Stirring U.S. Consciences In a Century of Martyrdom

BY Jim Cosgrove

April 12-18, 1998 Issue | Posted 4/12/98 at 2:00 AM


A religious rights activist believes Christian persecution is at an all time high

Nina Shea is an international human-rights attorney focusing on the issue of religious persecution. She is the author of In the Lion's Den, an acclaimed account of Christian persecution in the world today, and serves as director of the Center for Religious Freedom of Freedom House, a Washington-based human-rights and pro-democracy organization. She recently spoke with Register assistant editor Peter Sonski about the widespread problem of Christian persecution.

Sonski: To what do you attribute the prevalence of Christian persecution throughout the world today?

Shea: This is the greatest century of martyrdom, of anti-Christian persecution, and persecution of Christ-ianity—and there are two reasons for that. I have, through my research in the last 12 years, come to realize that [it results from] communist and fascist ideologies as well as the rise and spread of militant Islam. [It is in political systems such as these that] you see the persecution growing, spreading, and continuing in a very severe form.

In how many countries are Christians being persecuted?

I studied 11 different countries in my book, but there are more than that. I will soon be undertaking a survey on religious persecution and religious freedom around the world for all groups—not just Christians—but right now we just don't know. This is all really new territory. We're still trying to establish what is going on.

Part of the reason that it is “new” is that the secular press does not report on it. There is a failure to report on a Christian minority being persecuted. For example, The Washington Post has not reported on the persecution of the Churches in China for more than a year. The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today have never reported on the persecution of evangelicals in China—ever. They may talk about a bishop of the Catholic Church being persecuted— not regularly but intermittently.

They don't talk about Protestants at all?

No. They don't see the evangelicals at all; they're invisible to them. Also, they don't—and have never—identified [the jihad] religion in Sudan that is anti-Christian as one of the main reasons for the war and for the atrocities going on in the war—the slavery, bombing, massacres, all sorts of abominations. The non-Muslim community, the Christian community, is invisible. You're not getting any secular reporting on the issue and there has not been leadership from our political leaders. It was not a burning issue for most Americans until recently, and groups like ours were really squeaking by with very little popular support.

You said you studied 11 countries. But the problem could be in double or triple that number?


How long has this been going on? You mentioned the rise of communism and fascism.

One of the great anti-Christian massacres occurred in the very early part of this century against the Armenian community in Turkey—and that was really [the fault of] secularism. That has been part of the problem too, but communism has been a continuing theme throughout the century. Before it was the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe; now we're seeing it in China, North Korea, and Vietnam. There hasn't been that type of militant atheism in this world for centuries on the scale of communist hostility to Christianity and religion.

It has been going on for most of the century in China and it hasn't been topical. Part of the reason is that we in the West were distracted by what was going on in the Soviet Union. That concern about the Church in Russia has pretty much ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Americans weren't interested in their brothers and sisters in Christ who were being persecuted abroad in the countries that remained.

China was persecuting—the most severe persecution came during the Mao period and the cultural revolution in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Where were we in the West? Why didn't we ever speak out about that? Why weren't we praying in our churches for the Christians being persecuted then? I think there has been a lack of interest, but that is changing.

Are these people being persecuted only because they are Christians, or are there other reasons?

There are no other reasons. In China, I published in my book a statement against a Catholic priest published in the mid ‘90s, where he is sentenced to a labor camp for saying Mass, for ministering the sacrament of the sick.

It is for religious reasons—because they refuse to register with the government. Registering doesn't mean just signing up in some bureaucrat's office, it means submitting to the control and supreme authority of the government in matters of religion.

Doesn't the Chinese government view an allegiance to the Holy See— to the Pope—as treason?

Well, it's very practical. China has said that one of the two main reasons for them not recognizing the Vatican, or not allowing the Vatican to designate bishops, is because the Vatican will interfere with their internal affairs—and they're right. The Vatican will, because the Vatican—the Magisterium—tells us that abortion is wrong, that Christ will come again … or that there is a Catechism. All of those things are banned. The Vatican says that we should baptize our children, that we should teach religion to our children. The government does not want that.

The government bans evangelizing anyone under 18 years of age. Beijing bans any type of protest against abortion. It's part of the government's economic plan to have a one-child policy—which is enforced through forced abortions and sterilization. They have a eugenics program. If you have [one of any number of] genetic defects, you can't even get married and you're sterilized.

[It's an attack at the] heart of Christianity. Christianity is radical. It's a radical theory of the individual dignity of the human person, of the supremacy of God—and a Communist Party-dominated regime cannot accept that.

China does allow what is called the “Patriotic Church” to exist. It bears the name “Catholic,” although it is regulated by the government.

The Patriotic Association of Catholics is under the direct control of the Communist Party and there is a political correctness test for its priests and bishops. They are constantly monitored. They are used—and it is very clear in government documents—to suppress, spy on, and manipulate the Underground Church. They are not free to evangelize, for example, or to hold to the basic tenets of the Catholic faith. That doesn't mean there aren't sincere Catholics within that Church, but it is not an independent Church. It is not independent of the Communist Party of China.

What of those Catholic leaders who are openly loyal to Rome?

By our count, there are 10 Catholic bishops in prison, labor camps, or under house arrest today in China.

There's obviously repression of Christianity, but it seems there are other elements too. Forced sterilization; the refusal of the right to marriage; the one-child policy—those are basic human rights abuses. These forms of persecution in China go beyond suppression or oppression of Christianity.

There are no political freedoms— civil rights freedoms—in China. Freedom House ranks every country in the world on a scale of those freedoms, and China is at the very bottom—the worst case scenario of no civil rights and no political freedoms. But keep in mind that the only underground [movements] in China are the underground Christian Churches. There is no solidarity labor union. There is no human rights agency. There is no freedom of the press. There are no underground attempts to speak with a voice different from the government except for these Churches.

Therefore, the Church is in a special category, because it does exist and it is suffering. Unlike some theoretical labor union, which does not exist. In other words, there are no people in prison in China for being labor leaders right now, because there is no labor movement at all—not even in the underground.

There is an Underground Catholic Church. How many other Christian faiths have underground Churches?

Protestantism is, by fiat of Beijing, non-denominational—so there aren't Baptists and Methodists and Pentecostals. They have different tenets within the non-denominational existence, but there is no specific Church.

Are any of them forced underground?

Many. There are somewhere between 40 million and 60 million Christians in China and the vast majority of those are in the underground. In the Catholic world, there are—Vatican statistics show—10 million Catholics. The government only acknowledges 4 million. So there are about 6 million Catholics in the underground. The Protestants make up the rest of that, 30 million or 40 million or so.

The government says there are 10 million Protestants, so there are 20 million to 30 million in the underground. It is interesting because the Southern Baptist Convention, according to their press, had 25,000 of their members go to China and share their faith in 1995. So Protestantism is growing astronomically in China. Catholicism is growing too, but it is growing through the population growth.

How can there be growth if there is only one child allowed per couple?

Well, the Catholics ignore that.

And risk persecution?


If a couple were to have more than one child, what would be the penalty inflicted upon them?

It could be anything from sterilization and forced abortion if the pregnancy was discovered in time, to just crippling fines, job ostracism …


Possibly, but not likely. It may be short-term stint, but you will be blacklisted from company employment and from most of our companies who have work forces there.

Our companies? You mean U.S. firms?

Yes. Personnel is handed over to the joint partner. So it is the Chinese who are policing the work forces within [U.S.] factories. McDonnell Douglas in its Shanghai plant had the Communist Party handling its personnel. They had Communist Party officers right there in the plant. So these people, if they violate the policy, they will be fined.

Nicholas Kristof, the bureau chief for The New York Times in Beijing, writes about this in his book China Wakes. He gives an example of how one woman in the work place—I'm not saying this is in an American company—was fined to such an extent that she was indentured to that company for 12 years. She worked without pay for 12 years.

Also, there were three Catholic villages raided a couple of years ago. Police troops surrounded the villages, raided them, beating everyone that they could find, torturing some of them, putting electric prods in their mouths, and setting up a prison, setting up a people's court, and basically keeping them under surveillance. In rural areas it's common to have more than one child and to violate the policy. In some cases they even allow two children. But in the Catholic villages, they were defying this routinely and that's when [the government] raided these three particular villages.

Citizens are scrutinized more carefully in the Catholic villages?

Sometimes. China is a big place and it is unevenly applied. But Catholicism is growing. Both the above-ground and the below-ground Church, both Protestantism and Catholicism are growing. There's a tremendous thirst for Christianity like we've never seen before in the history of China.

Is there a large American population in China?

Certainly the cities—the coastal

cities in particular—have large foreign populations, large American populations. Thousands of American companies are there.

What sort of influence does the Chinese government have over Americans who are working or residing in China with their one child policy?

Well, [the government doesn't] care about the expatriates. They don't apply that to foreign society expatriates. You don't get to live in China as a foreigner if you don't have a job either. You would be expelled without work.

If they were too harsh with Americans and American firms, wouldn't the government risk losing the benefit of the American dollar bolstering their economy?

No, that's not true. The [American] firms take quite a bit of guff from them, because they see the market. McDonald's had its contract broken— on Tiananmen Square, at least. It was just nullified. The government wanted to put some project there—one of its own projects.

So they run rough-shod over the Americans?

Yes. In fact, American businessmen have been jailed for contract disputes with the government. They think nothing of putting American businessmen in prison. There is no due process for anybody and there is no protection for anybody, but the business community does not band together. They do not make demands.

There is no commercial code in China. There is no way of regulating contracts. That is slowly starting to change from the pressure of the U.S. government now—in fact the Justice Department is trying to help them establish a rule of law for commercial practices, but it is not as though they are fearful of the American business community. The Chinese hold all the chips—or at least the American community thinks they does.

The White House seems to be making many overtures to the Chinese government. Administration officials have visited China, and President Jiang Zemin was here recently. Do you foresee an occasion when religious rights will take precedence over U.S. economic concerns or initiatives with regard to China—and, for that matter, in other countries where such persecution is going on?

Well, I certainly don't think that we're going to go back to a policy of denying Most Favored Nation (MFN) status to China—that is, an across the board trade cut-off. But I can foresee pressure building for the Administration to come up with some kind of sanction strategy. There is none now, at all, with China. There is absolutely—and I have had talks with the National Security Council about this—nothing in the offing or on the drawing board that if China does not do this, this, and this, then we will have a predictable effect of conditioning aid.

The Chinese Red Army does business here, has companies here. It would be very practical to condition that on greater religious freedom. It is not on the drawing board yet, but I think it could happen. We could cut off international and multinational bank loans to Chinese businesses until they stop and let out all the priests and nuns from prison camps.

How do you view the persecutions and slaughters elsewhere, in Algeria, for example?

It's not the same. Algeria is not about religion.

But Christians have been murdered in Algeria. The obvious example is the French monks murdered in 1996.

Yes. I think that they targeted those monks, the Trappists, because they were Christians. And I think foreigners or Westerners were targeted because they were perceived as Christians— whether they were or not. That was in the early stages.

What is going on in Algeria started off as a political statement, with the terrorists being denied an election victory. The first targets tended to be Westerners and religious figures. Now it has moved way beyond that. Traditional villages are being targeted, where women who wear head cloths, and are probably every bit as Islamic as their killers, are getting their throats slit.

So I think we really have to set aside Algeria. It is a terrible human rights disaster. We should have a policy for that. We as a world leader should be trying to work to resolve it.

In your view, what measures should be taken to eradicate persecution and make sure human rights are respected?

Well, Americans have to start learning about what is going on in the world, and American Christians in particular. Catholics and Protestants have to inform themselves about the persecution that is going on against their Churches abroad in these countries, because there is a great deal of ignorance in our society. There is a great deal of inwardness in our society. Even though we are traveling all the time to these places—we are probably the most traveled population in history—yet we really don't see what is below the surface.

We have to start forging solidarity links with these Churches—particularly the Catholic community. I think the Catholic community really needs to give some support, both moral support and financial, to these beleaguered Churches. The Protestant communities seem to be a lot better at that than we are. That is not to say that the Catholic community has not been generous— our bishops and so forth—but we really need to show greater awareness and concern.

So education is the first step?

Yes, and political activism is the second—and, obviously, prayer. We should go back to the days when we prayed for the persecuted Church abroad every Sunday during the prayer of the faithful.

We've got to become engaged politically. We have rights as citizens and we should be using those rights to let our political leaders know that we care about these issues, that we don't want an [America that doesn't discuss] religious freedom issues when they have a summit. Political dissidents are [discussed], but not persecuted religious figures.

We're a pluralist nation. The morals of this nation are more diverse in their practice or acceptance than at any other time in our history. How can we ask our political leaders to put some moral teeth into the legislation they're passing in dealing with foreigners?

There is a document called the [U.N.] Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That's what we're talking about here—the international standards that are universally agreed upon that cover political and civil rights. The United States signed that document, and religious freedom is Article 18. Religious freedom for all: to choose and practice your religion, to designate your leaders, to teach your children. That is not peculiar to Catholicism here—or even Christianity, or even American tradition. It is an internationally recognized U.N. guideline.

If most Americans could see what I see from my vantage point in Washington they would be shocked at what their government is doing or not doing. Let me just give one example. Saudi Arabia: The U.S. government recently capitulated to a Saudi demand to stop a Catholic Mass on U.S. embassy grounds for U.S. embassy employees in Saudi Arabia. The government just decided it didn't want to offend its Saudi hosts and it wasn't going to demand religious freedom for our embassy employees on U.S. Embassy grounds. That is an abomination. They certainly must think that we are the materialistic, morally bankrupt culture that they say we are.

—Peter Sonski

Nina Shea

Personal: Attorney who for 20 years has specialized in international human rights; graduate of Smith College and American University Law School; married, with three children.

Background: For the past 12 years has focused on the issue of religious persecution; director of the Center for Religious Freedom of Freedom House, a 56-year-old Washington-based human-rights and pro-democracy organization; author of In the Lion's Den, a widely acclaimed book on anti-Christian persecution throughout the world.

Achievements: Has organized or participated in numerous religious persecution fact-finding missions across the globe; has testified regularly before Congress, written many articles, and has been a guest on more than 100 radio programs as well as CBS News and ABC News to report on her findings and experiences; serves on the Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom to the U.S. Secretary of State.