The U.S. State Department on July 22 accused China of severely limiting the religious rights of Christians and in some instances actively persecuting members of Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. The report, prepared at the request of Congress, addressed the situation faced by Christians in 78 nations in which the State Department suspected that problems might exist. Although the primary focus was on Christians, problems face by the other minority faiths -- Baha'is in Iran and Buddhists in China, for example -- also were briefly mentioned.
Although a State Department official said China had not been singled out, the report gave more attention to Beijing's policies than to any other government's. Following a 1996 government directive "to suppress unauthorized religious groups and social organizations," said the report, "Chinese authorities in some areas made strong efforts to crack down on the activities of unregistered Catholic and Protestant movements in 1996-97." China requires the official registration of religious groups, but Catholics aligned with Rome and many Protestant churches have declined to comply. They say registration means compromising religious freedom because the government places restraints on doctrinal teachings and activities.
China's unregistered churches often meet in private homes and are known as "house churches." U.S. Christian activists who have long criticized Chinese policies toward Christians say more Chinese belong to the underground congregation than to registered churches. The report stated that house churches have been raided and that leaders "were detained for lengthy investigation, and some were beaten." Local Chinese authorities, the report continued, have used threats, property demolition, interrogation, arrest and "reform-through-education sentences' to carry out Beijing's policy of suppression.
Nina Shea, a Catholic activist in Washington with the human rights group Freedom House, contended that the report could mark a turning point in the effort to galvanize support for Chinese Christians, who she said number more than 40 million. "This report is very important because it has created a peg for people to take note of the issue," she said. "This lends important credibility to what we've been saying all along." According to Shea, China persecutes unregistered Christians more for political than theological concerns. "Chinese official no longer regard religion as the opiate of the masses, but they fear religion because they cannot control it," she said. …