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Freedom of Religion in China: An Ordinary Citizen’s Nightmare

By: Marianne Y. Xu

Saint Augustine once said, “An unjust law is no law at all.” The unjust law that I would change is the lack of freedom of religion for ordinary Chinese citizens. By “ordinary,” I mean the billions of people who lack political connections, social capital, wealth, education, and mainstream ethnicity (99% of China’s population is Han). More often than not, they are peasants, migrant workers, or members of China’s fifty-five ethnic minorities, and their beliefs often exclude them from mainstream atheist culture.

Although Article 36 of the Chinese Constitution allows citizens to enjoy religious freedom, it recognizes only five religions (Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism) and labels all others “illegal.” Religious activity is permitted and even protected, as long as it is “normal religious activity.” This would include worshiping in temples, churches, and mosques, where teachings are scrupulously reviewed, arbitrarily filtered, and closely monitored by one of five “patriotic religious associations,” which is overseen by the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA). The SARA decides which groups it officially recognizes and often profits from the intentional vagueness of the Constitution to deny legal protection to groups that are under “foreign influence” or that are “not normal.”

Religious freedom in China thus remains under state control and not free at all. At great risk of religious persecution are Christians who attend churches that are not officially registered with a religious association. Of approximately 200 million Chinese Christians, only about 18 million attend state-sanctioned Three-Self Churches, which hold Bible studies and services that eliminate parts of the Bible that might turn believers against the government. Because of this filtered and inauthentic version of Christianity, the overwhelming majority of Christians gather in “underground” churches, where they can study the Bible in its entirety. However, they risk arrest and imprisonment because these churches are not officially recognized by a patriotic religious association and are thus illegal.

There are grave consequences to this limited freedom of religion. Christians who are caught worshiping, preaching, or leading Bible studies in underground churches are not only stripped of their human rights. T reputation is smeared, and their chances of securing employment falls close to zero.

Furthermore, their relatives lose out on promotions and raises at work; their children become ostracized at school; and doctors take their health concerns less seriously. Persecuted Christians are likely to become destitute, depressed, and ill. Also, family members who are imprisoned are rarely allowed visitation rights and a right to a fair trial; they can be separated for years, even decades, and forbidden to communicate.

Unfortunately, Christianity is not the only religion that is restricted. In fact, in order to be a member of the Communist Party, officials must renounce all religious affiliations. This rule not only violates the equal opportunity employment clause, but it also effectively relegates religion to a political mechanism and a state-controlled entity – a puppet. Recent government crackdowns have not only impacted Christians in underground churches but, perhaps even more seriously, ethnic minorities that are considered religious separatists.

For example, Uighur (oi-woor) Muslims in Xinjiang are accused of being responsible for recent terrorist attacks in Beijing and Yun-nan. When I had the opportunity to teach English there in the summer of 2008, I witnessed the tension between the government and the Uighurs, as well as between the Han ethnic majority and the Uighur minority. Right in the center of town, a giant statue of Mao towered over the local marketplace and the second largest mosque in the world, reminding the Uighurs of who was in control. The following year, in 2009, a bloody ethnic uprising took place two weeks before my team traveled there. The government closed off the borders and banned Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, and all forms of telecommunication. It was impossible to get in, and that was the last time I heard from most of my Uighur students. Persecution continues today; beginning in 2014, Uighurs were banned from holding any activities related to the celebration of Ramadan, the most important festival of Labeled as a “Country of Particular Concern” by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, China must change its law that permits and protects freedom of “normal religious activity,” as long as the activity is officially recognized by one of the five patriotic religious associations. To protect all citizens’ rights to freedom of religion, the state must also respect the freedom of those who do not register with a patriotic religious association and whose activities fall outside of an association’s scope. In addition, the state should extend equal opportunity of education and employment to all instead of discriminating on the basis of religion, ethnicity, and perceived political affiliation.

As a “third-culture kid” born in Beijing, I immigrated to London at age four and to Houston at age fourteen. Having moved 25 times in 25 years, I have made my home in several major cities, including Beijing, London, Houston, Paris, Marseille, Boston, and New Haven. Consequently, my perspectives on China issues are international. I desire to see a transformation in China’s human rights record not only by making constitutional amendments, such as recently adding a human rights and right to private property clause, but more importantly by enforcing these and other international laws. I hope to see evidence of integrity and consistency in the implementation of international laws, as well as respect for the law and its impartiality. Above all, I hope to one day know of a China that maintains and protects every individual’s dignity and freedom of religion and personal faith. I hope this vision will begin with me.

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