WASHINGTON — While China appears to be making some religious-liberty concessions on the eve of the Olympics, critics in the United States say Chinese persecution of Christians in the country is on the rise.
China is on the U.S. State Department’s list of “Countries of Particular Concern” as one of the world’s worst persecutors of religious freedom. American experts on religious-liberty conditions in China said that, in recent weeks, there has been a significant Chinese crackdown on many dissenting groups — including Christians in churches not officially registered with or sanctioned by the government.
That, the China-watchers said, has resulted in many new arrests.
Chinese officials have also reportedly been cracking down on other dissenting groups, such as human-rights activists and Tibetan independence advocates.
Daniel Burton, staff writer at the China Aid Association, said Chinese officials kicked more missionaries out of the country last year than in all of the previous 59 years of communist control. The persecution is taking place, he said, under the internal government code name “Typhoon No. 5.” Some of the missionaries ordered to leave had been there for 20 years.
“We are seeing an increase in persecution across the board,” Burton said. “All foreigners (in China for the games) are going to be closely watched.”
Burton’s group, founded in 2002, keeps track of Chinese persecution of religious groups — particularly Christians in China’s thousands of unregistered churches.
In April 2007, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security issued a general nationwide order urging strict “background checks” on those who apply to participate in the Olympic Games. They banned 43 types of people in 11 categories, Burton said.
The categories focus on those the government considers “antagonistic elements,” he noted. That includes “religious extremists and religious infiltrators.”
Sarah Cook, an Asia researcher for the foreign-policy group Freedom House, said China’s ruling Communist Party doesn’t want to take chances that the games will become a platform for critics of Chinese policies. The recent increase in arrests of dissenting Christians and other groups is intended to reduce that risk, she said.
“It is much more subtle now,” Cook said of the current tactics versus earlier waves of persecution. Officials simply go to offenders’ doors individually, arrest them and take them away.
The offenders are sent to detention centers or labor camps. Cook said many average Chinese are not even aware that such crackdowns are taking place.
However, China is making some concessions to Christians on the eve of the games.
Olympic Edition Bibles, printed by the state-sanctioned China Christian Council and its sister organization, the Three Self Patriotic Movement, will be “Chinese-English bilingual and contain the four Gospels with the logos of the Beijing Olympic Games both in the cover and the back,” according to an e-mail from Ou Enlin, of the International Relations department of the CCC/TSPM. The two organizations represent officially registered Chinese churches.
He said the addresses of state-sanctioned churches in Beijing will be listed on the last page of each of the Bibles. The Bibles will be available free of charge at the churches and in the athletes’ housing quarters.
Despite such measures, Nina Shea, director of religious freedom at the Hudson Institute, believes the rest of the world’s Christians need to speak out against Chinese persecution.
“I’m in favor of boycotting the opening ceremony to send a signal that China oppresses religious freedom,” Shea said. She believes Americans should even boycott watching the opening on television.
“I think the Chinese want to do business as usual,” she said.
But, she added, “They are very sensitive to criticism.” Shea said she holds little hope that any international criticism would lead to changes in Chinese policy — which officially bans non-sanctioned churches — but that it would send a signal to officials that the rest of the international community is taking note of their activities.
China campaigned to host the Olympics in order to gain international prestige, Shea noted.
She believes Christians need to pray, but that they also need to do what they can as members of a democracy to communicate their concern to representatives in Congress.
She said Christians should signal to China that many Americans don’t see China as a full member of the international community and won’t until it guarantees religious and political freedom to its people. Only then, Shea said, will China live up to its full potential as a global power.
So far, President Bush and most other international leaders have shown indications that they plan to attend the opening ceremonies, despite the calls for boycott.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, in a July 14 statement, urged Bush to take steps during his Chinese visit to draw attention to the nation’s human-rights violations. The independent, bipartisan federal panel monitors religious-freedom conditions worldwide.
“The international community awarded China the 2008 summer games with the trust that Beijing would improve its protections of fundamental human rights, including the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief,” said Felice Gaer, USCIRF chair. “The commission concludes that China has not lived up to its promises and continues to engage in serious violations of religious freedom.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Robert Marus contributed to this story.)