Olympics put religious freedom in spotlight


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When the International Olympic Committee in July 2001 awarded China the right to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, Chinese citizens were ecstatic. But what potentially could have been China’s proudest moment has turned into something of a public relations minefield as world media probe China’s human rights gains and abuses, writes Sarah Page for Compass Direct News.
 
Among key issues raised is religious freedom, with China watchers reporting ongoing restrictions on freedom of worship, particularly for unregistered church groups, arrests, detention in labour camps and confiscation of Christian literature.
 
Hosting the Olympic Games provides China with a unique opportunity to showcase its stunning economic development. But with an estimated half a million foreign visitors expected and over 20,000 journalists, the government fears it will also be a prime opportunity for dissidents and human rights activists to present their cause to the world media.
 
As Liu Junning of the China Cultural Research Institute pointed out recently: “Chinese leaders want the country … put in the limelight. But the light is very hot.”
 
Chinese citizens can now choose their own careers, travel abroad, own a car and establish a business. But Christians cannot legally hold a prayer meeting in a private home, share a church service with foreign Christians or interact with foreign Christian organisations. China still bans religious education for children under the age of 18 and limits the publication of Bibles and other religious materials.
 
Many Chinese Christians see little good coming from the Olympics in the way of religious liberty. Some point to a government crackdown on unregistered house churches over the past year, as evidenced in a 2007 report issued in February by the China Aid Association (CAA), and an unprecedented expulsion of foreign missionaries in 2007 as part of a “clean-up” in preparation for the Games.
 
Others fear religious persecution will increase after the Games as the world’s media moves on from China.
 
The government has stepped up an official campaign against human rights activists and lawyers in recent months – and increased its suppression of religious believers, particularly members of unregistered Protestant and Catholic groups.
 
Protestant Crackdown
State security officials summoned house church leader Lou Yuanqi of Huocheng County in Xinjiang for questioning on 16 May and detained him for “inciting separatism,” according to CAA. That was only the latest in a series of raids and detentions.
 
In January, police raided and severely beat members of a house church in Yunnan province, CAA reported. The raid occurred after two church members, Chen Xiqiong and Liang Guihua, visited the Xishan District’s Public Security Bureau office to request an account of items, including Bibles, which had been taken from the church and burned by police in December.
 
Also in December, authorities in Shandong arrested 270 house church leaders who had gathered for training in Linyi city. According to CAA, officials released 249 of the leaders but sentenced 21 senior leaders to between one and three years of detention in labor camp.
 
Another three house church leaders were detained in Shandong on 8 May.
 
Police arrested 46 Christians at a house church meeting in Kashgar, Xinjiang province in April. They released 44 Christians after ordering them to confess their illegal Sunday worship activities and study a government handbook on religious policy. Two other Christians, Ding Zhichun and Ma Wenxiu, were sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention.
 
CAA also said officials had launched an “Anti-illegal Christian Activities Campaign” in Xinjiang.
 
Officials have arrested at least three Uyghur house church Christians in recent months. Police arrested Alimjan Yimit in January and accused him of endangering national security. Officials had previously closed Alimjan’s business in September and accused him of using it as a cover for “preaching Christianity among people of Uyghur ethnicity.” His trial was due to take place on 26 May, according to Compass sources.
 
Osman Imin (Wusiman Yaming in Chinese) was arrested in November 2007, accused of “leaking state secrets” and sentenced to two years of labour camp.
 
Compass has confirmed that a female believer arrested earlier this year also remains in detention in Xinjiang.

There may be worse yet to come; CAA sources are predicting a severe crackdown on all unregistered house churches beginning on 1 June.
 
The country officially recognises five religions – Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Islam and Taoism. An official patriotic association for each religion controls adherents’ activities and governs the appointment of clergy.
 
Officially there are 16 million Protestant believers and 5 million Catholics, but these figures exclude members of unregistered churches. Compass sources estimate there are 60 million additional Christians: 10 million in major house church networks, 35 million in independent rural house churches and 15 million in independent house churches.

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