What's Happening to Christians in China?

By Martin, Ann; Byler, Myrrl | The Christian Century, September 24, 1997 | Go to article overview
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What's Happening to Christians in China?


Martin, Ann, Byler, Myrrl, The Christian Century


An intense debate has been waged in recent months about Christians in China. At issue is whether or not Christians in China are being persecute, and if they are, what the United States should do about it.

On one side of the debate is a constellation of organizations and individuals who contend that Muslim, communist and other totalitarian governments have launched an all-out attack on their Christian citizens and are getting away with it because the U.S. government, the media, human rights groups and mainstream American Christian churches are silent in the face of the slaughter. Some of the most articulate voices in this camp are Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council; Focus on the Family's James Dobson; Michael Horowitz, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute; New York Times columnist Abe Rosenthal; and Nina Shea, staff member of the human rights organization Freedom House and author of In the Lion's Den. This alliance sees parallels between the Jewish Holocaust and today's events, and they profess outrage that the lessons of history seem to have been so easily forgotten.

Michael Horowitz last year said: "Christians have become the targets of opportunity to the thug regimes around the world, and they are many. What's going on now is monumental, and it's affecting millions, tens of millions, of people. We're talking not about discrimination, but persecution of the worst sort: slavery, starvation, murder, looting, burning, torture."

Premier among the "thug regimes" in the eyes of many conservative activists is China. "China is the litmus test," says Shea. "If our government means to take the assault on Christians seriously, it must deal with China." The specific way that Shea and others urge the U.S. to deal with China is to deny it Most Favored Nation (MFN) trading status.

Responding to these charges have been religious, human rights and political figures, including former president Jimmy Carter; the China Service Coordinating Office, a Wheaton, Illinois-based umbrella group representing more than 100 evangelical organizations working in China; staff of the National Council of Churches; and Human Rights Watch. These groups vary in their assessment of religious persecution in China, but all object to some aspect or assumption of the anti-China lobby. Carter, who saw Sino-American relations improve greatly during his administration, believes the lobbyists are eroding those accomplishments and triggering a dangerous anti-U.S. backlash in China. The NCC urges attentiveness to the voices of Chinese Christians and takes its cues from the China Christian Council (CCC), China's only nationaly recognized Protestant organization. The NCC believes that much of what is reported as religious persecution is something less clear-cut. The evangelical groups represented by the China Service Coordination Office do not refer to the CCC, but they too express concern about the impact that denial of MFN status would have on Chinese Christians as well as on the outsiders trying to witness there. Human Rights Watch has issued reports on religious persecution in China and called for specific changes in religious policy, but it rebuffs the claim that persecuted Christians are getting less attention than their plight warrants.

Those debating the state of Christians in China may seem like blind men describing an elephant -- each basing his description on the leg or ear or trunk he had hold of and questioning the sanity or good will of those who have hold of a different piece. Most American Christians, concerned though they are about the status of Christians in the world's most populous country, have an extremely limited view of the elephant. They simply do not know whether religious persecution worldwide -- and in China specifically -- really is hitting epidemic proportions, and whether millions of Chinese Christians live each day in fear, with no hope of relief save from concerned outsiders.

A strong dose of humility is a proper first step toward understanding.

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