Protecting and Striving for the Rights to Religious Freedom: Case Studies on the Protestant House Churches in China

By Hong, Zhaohui | Journal of Third World Studies, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Protecting and Striving for the Rights to Religious Freedom: Case Studies on the Protestant House Churches in China


Hong, Zhaohui, Journal of Third World Studies


In the history of the People's Republic of China (PRC), a notable yet heretofore neglected phenomenon is the growth of a significant number of Protestant house churches. These churches have not been officially registered and approved by the government, but their estimated membership has reached approximately 20-60 million. (1) Since 1949 when PRC was founded, Chinese protestant churches have undergone periodic development. The first period from 1949 to 1976 (at the end of the Cultural Revolution) saw the dissolution of most churches under heavy political pressure with the exception of a few underground house churches in the countryside. The following two decades from 1978-1998 witnessed the growth of the Three-Self Churches (TSC), (2) which were official protestant organizations supported by the government, but the house churches were still illegal during that time. More recently, from 1999-2011, the number of young, educated, urban, wealthy and returned overseas Christians has been on a dramatic rise due to the increasing economic development, social diversity, and educational enhancement. However, house church members still suffer from the "five no" policies implemented by the government, namely, they are not allowed to exist legally, build churches, found foreign religious schools, conduct inter-regional church activities or establish connections with overseas churches. (3)

In light of the government's determination to restrict further growth of these churches as well as the latter's own limitations, it is rather difficult for the house churches to break out of the present predicament. In order to alleviate the house church and their members' poverty of rights, this author offers a few thoughts and options.

First of all, it is necessary to treat the house church members as ordinary citizens. They should not be given any special legal status, but neither should they be discriminated against in terms of their political, economic, social and cultural status. They are "citizens first, church members second." (4)

A breakthrough point may be the revision of Article 36 of the Chinese Constitution, which declares that "the state protects normal religious activities" without defining what "normal" means. (5) Similarly, the 2004 constitutional revision stipulates that "citizens' legal private properties may not be violated" without defining what "legal" implies, thus leaving a great deal of maneuverability in implementing the law. (6) As a matter of fact, the meaning of "normal" is even much vague than "legal." is incense-burning, Buddha-worshipping and spirits-invoking "normal" religious activity, or is it abnormal feudalistic superstition? It is interesting to note that the Constitution singles out religious activities by placing a pretext without saying anything about other non-religious activities. In other words, are there any "abnormal" economic or political activities? Furthermore, if a religious activity is defined as "abnormal," then should it be suppressed? Are there any other options between protecting and suppressing such an activity?

In addition, Article 36 also states that "no one should use religion to engage in activities that result in sabotaging social order, harming citizen's physical health and hindering the education system." (7) Again, it is rather discriminatory to single out religion as the only means for people to "sabotage," "harm" or "hinder" others when any individual, organization or belief system can also have such an impact. The same article stipulates that "religious entities and affairs may not be manipulated by foreign forces," (8) as if it were not possible for other non-religious organizations, to be placed under foreign influence. One does have to venture far to realize that the Chinese Communist Party itself was once influenced by the Comintin International, a foreign organization, and Marxism, a foreign ideology in its origin, is still exercising profound influence in China today.

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