A group of underground Chinese Christian churches has issued a defiant petition to the country’s parliament demanding respect for their constitutional right to freedom of religion.
The petition — signed by the pastors of 17 top unregistered churches — was addressed to National People’s Congress Chairman Wu Bangguo (吳邦國) and urges the legislature to pass a law to protect religious freedom.
It complained of an ongoing nationwide crackdown aimed at shutting down “underground” or “home” churches.
In China, about 20 million Protestants and Catholics worship in official churches, while membership in “underground” churches that refuse to bow to government controls on religion has grown to an estimated 50 million.
The action was the first time so many unregistered churches had grouped together to publicly address freedom of worship in China, said the US-based rights group China Aid, which posted the petition on its Web site.
“For the last six decades, the rights to liberty of religious faith granted to our country’s Christians by the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China have not been put into practice,” said the petition, dated May 10.
It urged the parliament to investigate the constitutionality of the government’s “religious management” policy, which restricts and suppresses religious freedom through “politically charged” government-run churches.
It also accused the authorities of systematically violating a clause on religious freedom in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the Beijing government has signed up to.
The petition urged a probe into efforts by authorities to shut down Beijing’s Shouwang Church, the capital’s leading unregistered church with a congregation of more than 1,000, largely businesspeople and academics.
Since 2009, Beijing authorities have repeatedly closed Shouwang’s places of worship, put church leaders under house arrest and detained hundreds of followers, who have had to resort to worshipping outdoors, the petition said.
In response to the petition, the government said it singled out Shouwang for engaging in “illegal gatherings” and harming “social order,” and denied that religious freedoms had been curtailed.
“The Chinese government safeguards the right of Chinese citizens to religious freedom and freedom of faith in accordance with the law,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Jiang Yu (姜瑜) told reporters yesterday.
“At the same time, while enjoying their freedom, citizens must respect their legal rights and obligations and cannot harm the public interest,” Jiang said.