A new report on religious persecution in Communist China suggests that things are getting progressively worse, not better, for people of faith in the officially atheist country.
Since President Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2012, government control over religion in China has intensified, according to a report released Tuesday by Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world.
In its report titled “The Battle for China’s Spirit,” Freedom House revealed that at least 100 million people belong to religious groups facing “high” or “very high” levels of persecution in China.
Under Xi, many persecutory policies have expanded and evolved and a more restrictive legal environment has been put in place, the report states. Repression has expanded to target even state-registered congregations and leaders, and the government has increased electronic surveillance at places of worship, imprisoning believers for sharing unauthorized religious content on social media.
Since early 2014, local Communist authorities have stepped up efforts to stem the spread of Christianity “amid official rhetoric about the threat of ‘Western’ values and the need to ‘Sinicize’ religions,” the report notes. Christian denominations have suffered from cross-removal and church-demolition campaigns, punishment of state-sanctioned leaders, and the arrest of human rights lawyers who take up Christians’ cases, it adds.
Despite recent declarations by Pope Francis that religious liberty is protected in China, where “the churches are full” and “you can practice your faith,” the reality would seem to be quite different.
Religious activities as simple as fasting, praying with one’s children or performing meditation exercises “are restricted and can be harshly punished in China,” said research analyst Sarah Cook, the author of the report. “The scale and severity of controls over religion, and the trajectory of both growing persecution and pushback, are affecting Chinese society and politics far beyond the realm of religious policy alone,” she said.
Communist authorities “regularly deploy harsh penalties, long prison terms, and deadly violence against certain communities,” Cook said, and in many parts of China, ordinary believers face “bureaucratic obstacles, mandatory political ‘reeducation,’ or economic exploitation.”
The report suggests, however, that China’s hardline policy toward religion may be ultimately counterproductive.
The “escalating cycle of repression and pushback” has resulted in “an enormous black market” for religion, the report states, “forcing many believers to operate outside the law and to view the regime as unreasonable, unjust, or illegitimate.”
Therefore, as officially authorized groups such as the Catholic Patriotic Association suffer from suspicion of inauthenticity and collaboration, others such as the Catholic underground church are growing in both numbers and the esteem of the people.
From this perspective, “it would appear that in the long-term battle for China’s spirit, an unreformed Communist Party will ultimately lose,” said Cook.
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