Faith Leaders Warn Lawmakers of Worsening Religious Persecution for Catholics and Other Christians in China, Criticize Vatican Agreement
At a hearing this week on Capitol Hill, one pastor said: ‘There is a real price to pay for being a true Christian in China.’
WASHINGTON — Survivors of religious persecution and leaders from Muslim, Christian and Buddhist faith backgrounds warned lawmakers on Capitol Hill Wednesday that the persecution of people of faith by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has only grown worse in the past year, as churches are destroyed, people of faith imprisoned, and government efforts to take over church leadership continue.
“There is no freedom of religion in China under the rule of the CCP,” Pastor Pan Yongguang of the Mayflower Church told those gathered at an interfaith discussion of the House Select Committee on the CCP. “There is a real price to pay for being a true Christian in China; and as a pastor, I’m especially aware of it.”
The Protestant pastor was the target of scrutiny by the CCP for receiving instruction and ordination from the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the U.S. that, he said, was viewed as “colluding with anti-Chinese forces overseas” by authorities. He fled the country with his Reformed Presbyterian congregation in 2019, first to South Korea and then Thailand, before being granted asylum in the United States in April 2023. He said that, in China, “churches are often forced to stop services” and “are relocated, banned and closed.”
In China, Pastor Pan told the lawmakers, “religious persecution is often carried out under the guise of crimes against the national security.”
Persecution of Catholics
Frederick Davie, vice chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, noted in his remarks that persecution has worsened for Catholics in China despite the 2018 agreement China made with the Vatican regarding the appointment of bishops. The specific terms of this agreement have not been disclosed.
“The Vatican China agreement on bishop appointments has not brought improvement in religious freedom to these vulnerable Catholics,” he said. “In fact, just this past year authorities detained and then forcibly ‘disappeared’ a number of underground Catholic bishops and other priests who refused to join the state-controlled Chinese Patriotic Association.”
Father Kurt Klismet is a priest with the Order of the Most Holy Trinity and of the Captives, a religious order founded in 1198 that ransomed themselves for Christians held captive by nonbelievers and served their communities with works of mercy. Now, more than 800 years later, the order advocates for human rights along with working in education and parish ministries.
“We are very concerned about the situation of Christians in China,” said Father Klismet, who serves as a weekend pastor at St. Michael’s Church in Mount Airy, Maryland. “True religious freedom does not exist there. Those who advocate for religious freedom often suffer greatly. Last year, 90-year-old Joseph Cardinal Zen was brought before a Hong Kong court by the CCP on charges of conspiracy to collude with foreign forces.”
“Bishops, priests and religious leaders and members of the faithful live in fear of being detained, imprisoned, abused, having their churches destroyed if they dare to speak out.” He added that “church buildings are periodically damaged and destroyed in various regions of China by government order.”
While the Vatican has continued to decline to disclose the details of the 2018 agreement, it did release a statement last fall criticizing the unilateral Chinese installment of a bishop to a diocese the Vatican does not recognize.
“More recently, the CCP, despite having an agreement with the Catholic Church to collaborate on the appointment of bishops, appointed a bishop without any approval from the Vatican,” Father Klismet noted. “The CCP seeks to exert a control over the internal activities and governance of the Church in China.”
The Maryland priest told the Register that he would like to know the “contents of the agreement with the Chinese Communist Party” because “if an agreement has to be secret, it can be abused. If it’s open, everybody will be able to say clearly the agreement is being not kept by one party or another.”
Father Klismet said the Chinese Communist Party is “limiting the ability of the Church to govern itself” through the appointment of its own bishops. “The Communist Party is trying to infiltrate the Church and to make certain that its socialist and communist policies are being adhered to and even taught by the Church,” he emphasized.
In addition to the CCP’s appointment of another bishop, also in apparent defiance of the Vatican agreement, concerns were raised over the party’s targeting of other religious leadership at the hearing. Bhuchung Tsering, a Tibetan exile and Buddhist with the International Campaign for Tibet, recalled the CCP’s imprisonment of the then-6-year-old boy named by the Dalai Lama as the Panchen Lama religious leader. “We haven’t heard about him since then,” Tsering said of the boy’s disappearance since 1995. “The Chinese authorities appointed their own candidate who now is being appointed to serve the Chinese political agenda.”
Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., who led the discussion Wednesday, said that in Tibet and Xinjiang, “we see the CCP’s unsanitized, brutal attitude towards religion. While other faiths are persecuted throughout China, Buddhists and Muslims in the far west of the country are facing, quite simply, the attempted annihilation of their faith and, in some cases, their population. The CCP is committing genocide, the crime above all other crimes, in Xinjiang, while some of the world’s religious leaders barely murmur a word in opposition.”
A Uyghur Muslim refugee, identified as Imam Hajim, became emotional during the discussion as he related through a translator the persecution he has faced in China. “I’m very different from all of you,” he said. “You have your family, you can communicate with family members with your loved ones, but I cannot do that. I have not been able to communicate with my parents, with my loved ones back home since 2017.”
“Since 2017, China has started a genocidal policy against the Uyghur people,” he said. “The first victims of the Chinese policy were the imams and the religious leaders.” He heard two months ago that the imam who initially taught him died in a camp in China, while the imam’s 14-year-old son has been sentenced to life in prison.
“The Chinese government also extends its long arm to other countries where Uyghurs live so we are not safe even in the U.S.,” he warned. “The Chinese government continues to arrest us, threaten us, and even force some Uyghurs to spy for Chinese government.”
Bob Fu, president of the NGO China Aid and a former house pastor in China who fled to the U.S. in 1997, told the Register that he believes “the religious-persecution situation in China is now the worst since the Cultural Revolution from the house churches, the Protestant and Catholic churches to the Uyghur Muslims.”
Fu said that the Chinese Communist Party has “criminalized tithing and offering. If you donate to the Church, that’s a criminal act. Many pastors are being imprisoned right now; they are being accused of committing business fraud, they call it.” For this charge, they face 10 to 15 years of imprisonment.
He called the situation for Catholics in China a “sad state of affairs,” saying that many “Catholic churches in Hong Kong under the so-called Hong Kong national security law are under indictment,” and “underground Church leaders are either ‘disappeared’ or in prison or being monitored.”
Fu called on Catholics to pray for those in China and urge elected officials to honor religious freedom, despite economic concerns. “That’s a basic first freedom, freedom of conscience,” he said. “If that is destroyed, then how can you trust any government for business?”