Sun, Aug 20, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Chinese crack down on unregistered churches


The rusty parked bicycles clogging the little lane attested to a strong turnout, as did the sound of voices, which resonated with hymns throughout the hamlet. Despite the 38?C heat, there was a sizeable Sunday crowd at the little Protestant church.

But there was also a hint of trouble, as some foreigners arrived unannounced at the back of the dilapidated building.

"Please, I beg you to leave here," a woman called out as she approached them from the front.

"We have already had a lot of difficulties. Go now," she said.

Two weeks earlier, as many as 500 police officers surrounded the congregation as they were closing in on their long-held dream of completing construction of a new church nearby.

The 3,000 or so people were driven away from the site, and those who argued or resisted in any way were arrested and, according to their lawyer, beaten.

Then the church, with all but the roof in place, was demolished.

The campaign against this poor little parish outside Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang Province in eastern China, is part of a national wave of repression against independent, or underground, churches that are not registered with the government and do not recognize the authority of state-appointed spiritual leaders.

Since the Regulation on Religious Affairs Law was introduced in March last year, provincial and local governments have begun a series of crackdowns on underground churches across China. The vague new rules call for local governments to "standardize" the religious management nationwide.

The Chinese crackdown, which also affects other faiths, especially Buddhism in Tibet and Islam in Xinjiang Province, comes at a time of booming growth in underground churches across the country.

The right to practice any of five recognized faiths -- Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam and Protestantism -- is enshrined in the Chinese Constitution, and authorities routinely insist that religious freedom exists in this country.

Under Chinese law, however, all recognized faiths must be registered and approved by the government, and they are very closely monitored and are required to follow strict and frequently changing regulations.

Armed with the new law, religious affairs and human rights specialists say, local officials are forcing small, independent parishes to close or to merge under tighter government control. The new rules also make it harder to register with the authorities, even for those who wish to operate within the law.

According to the China Aid Association, a US Christian advocacy group that monitors religious freedom in China, 1,958 pastors were arrested at smaller churches in the last year alone.

Although the crackdown is decentralized, with each province and locality carrying out its own program, the pattern is as unmistakable as the constant stream of incidents. In one recent case last month in Tongwei, a village in Anhui Province, 90 children were reportedly detained with 40 adults after police raided a Protestant Sunday school. The police labelled the church's teachings as "illegal evangelism."

Around the same time, in Hebei Province, as many as 90 other protesters were arrested after they demanded the release of two clergymen from the underground Roman Catholic Church who were taken and detained without explanation.

"There is a real concern over the apparent growth in religion, and how deep this runs," said Mickey Spiegel, a China specialist at Human Rights Watch.

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