The Chinese constitution states that citizens enjoy “freedom of religious belief” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities.” This term is not well defined and is applied in a manner inconsistent with China’s human rights obligations regarding religious freedom. Unregistered Christian groups remain subject to discrimination, are prevented from proselytizing, and can be arrested, detained, or tortured for their beliefs. All Christian groups, sanctioned or not, remain vulnerable.
Scholarly Analysis: Christian Response to Persecution in China
China, Russia, and Post-Soviet Central Asia (begins at China presentation)
Panel: Findings from Central Asia, with Rt. Rev. Borys Gudziak, Ukrainian Eparchial Bishop in France, Benelux, and Switzerland
Moderator: Kent Hill, World Vision
Speakers: Kathleen Collins, University of Minnesota
Karrie Koesel, University of Notre Dame
Fenggang Yang, Purdue University
Out of a population of over 1.3 billion people, most religious adherents in mainland China are either Buddhist (18.2 percent) or subscribe to “folk religions” (21.9 percent), while 52.2 percent of Chinese have no religious affiliation. Christians comprise approximately 5.1 percent of the population in China. Estimates of the number of Protestants range from 23-68 million people, while the population of Catholics is estimated at nine million people. There are also approximately 20,000 Orthodox Christians and under 10,000 other Christian denominations in the country.
History of the Chinese Christian Community
Christianity in China dates back to the seventh century. However, by the ninth century, an imperial edict banned all foreign religions, including Christianity, causing Christianity to all but disappear until the thirteenth century under the Yuan Dynasty. Christianity saw a period of growth in China in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through various missions. After World War II, as the country turned to Communism, the government promoted atheism. Nonetheless, in the 1950s an indigenous, Protestant movement known as the “Three Self Patriotic Movement” (TSPM) arose, with a Communist Party-dictated guiding principle of independence of the Chinese church from the West, and a willingness to submit to the direction of the Chinese state.The TSPM ceased to function during the Cultural Revolution, but resurged again in 1980. The TSPM is sanctioned by the Chinese government. The Catholic Church did not fare as well, because it owed its allegiance to the Holy See in Rome and had not sided with the Communists during the Chinese Revolution. Thus, the Chinese state organized the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church, independent of the Vatican, and Catholics who continued to acknowledge the authority of the Roman Pope were subject to persecution.
Current Situation of the Christian Community
The Chinese constitution states that citizens enjoy “freedom of religious belief” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities.” This term is not well defined and is applied in a manner inconsistent with China’s human rights obligations regarding religious freedom. Catholics professing loyalty to the Vatican are not permitted to organize and register as legal entities, and only Protestants affiliated with official patriotic organizations, such as TSPM, may register. Thus, Christians who are not members of sanctioned groups may be punished by the the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) or the Ministry of Public Security. Moreover, unsanctioned groups may not build houses of worship or religious schools. The result has been the growth of “house-churches,” which are not officially allowed but nonetheless exist. However, unregistered Christian groups remain subject to discrimination, are prevented from proselytizing, and can be arrested, detained, or tortured for their beliefs. All Christian groups, sanctioned or not, remain vulnerable. For example, the US Committee for International Religious Freedom reported that, in 2014, at least 1200 crosses have been forcibly removed from the rooftops of churches.