The chairman of China’s state-approved Catholic Church has come to the defense of the Communist government’s campaign to remove the most recognizable Christian symbol from the public eye, insisting that the government doesn’t engage in religious persecution.
Bishop Joseph Fang Xinyao is chairman of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the pseudo-Catholic group that colludes with the Communist party in exchange for the license to exist unmolested. Amidst a flurry of bad press for the Party’s crackdown on Christian practice, the bishop’s statements represent a feeble attempt to restore some degree of international respectability to the Xi Jinping government.
Meanwhile, as Communist China continues to tighten restrictions on religious practice, more and more believers are opting out of official, state-sanctioned religious organizations and moving their faith underground, according to recent reports.
Frustration among China’s hundreds of millions of religious believers is building and is now said to be “running higher than at any time since Chairman Mao’s death in 1976.”
Moreover, 2015 was the worst year on record for human rights violations in China according to a recent Congressional report, and conditions for religious believers in China have been on a “downward trend” since Xi Jinping took power as Chinese Communist Party General Secretary in 2012.
Last July, the Communist government of Shanghai mandated that Catholic priests and nuns faithful to Rome undergo “reeducation” classes on the central theme of the National Congress of the Communist Party.
The Roman Catholic Church—as opposed to the “patriotic” Church—has been a terrible embarrassment to Shanghai ever since a well-known bishop abruptly quit the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association in 2012, snubbing the Communist party in allegiance to Rome. The reeducation classes are part of an ongoing punishment of the Church in retaliation for the bishop’s act.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently issued its World Report 2016, in which it documents ongoing egregious abuses of religious liberty in China. HRW says that the authoritarian Communist regime “systematically curtails a wide range of fundamental human rights, including freedom of expression, association, assembly, and religion.”
Meanwhile Bishop Joseph Fang Xinyao says that Christians and state officials should “sit down and discuss” the government campaign that has resulted in the removal or demolition of 1,700 crosses since late 2013.
“I think this will resolve the conflicts,” the bishop said.
Bishop Fang is one of nine Catholic members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC). Three of the other eight members are illicit bishops who have not been recognized by the Vatican.
As criticism mounts against China’s record of religious persecution, party apparatchiks have rushed to defend China’s human rights record, while believers scatter to avoid state constraints.
Writing for China Daily, a Communist Party representative named Li Yunlong said that criticism of recent crackdowns on religious freedom in China are “a product of subjective bias and prejudice” with “no foundation in reality.”
“In China, all citizens can freely choose their own religious beliefs, express their beliefs and take part in religious activities. The social environment is constantly improving for the prosperity of religion in China, and society has becomes more and more objective and reasonable toward religions,” Mr. Li wrote.
As more and more believers take their faith “underground,” the Chinese government has to decide whether to pursue its hardline policies of absolute control.
At well over 100 million, Christian believers in the country now outnumber membership in the Communist Party itself, in what is still an officially atheist nation.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter Follow @tdwilliamsrome