During the first few months of 2020, Chinese authorities reportedly shut down at least 48 churches and removed more than 250 crosses. Normally, the government targets unregistered house churches, considering under Chinese law, all religious organizations and venues must be registered. What made this most recent crackdown unusual is that the churches were part of the state-affiliated Three-Self Patriotic Movement. These are venues nominally approved by the government, but even they are not immune to the Communist Party’s war on faith.
In any other country, such a massive crackdown on religious freedom would be an international outrage. Unfortunately, as documented in the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s (USCIRF) 2020 Annual Report, it has become the norm for Chinese Christians.
During the past few years, authorities have raided or closed down hundreds of house churches, confiscated Bibles, removed crosses from churches, and replaced images of Jesus Christ with pictures of President Xi Jinping. Despite a provisional agreement with the Vatican, the Chinese government continues to harass and detain members of the underground Catholic church. Chinese authorities have exploited the agreement and told Catholics that it requires them to join the state-affiliated Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (an interpretation the Vatican has disavowed).
Beijing’s recent decision to impose a national security law to end Hong Kong’s status as a separate legal jurisdiction also has important repercussions for the city’s hundreds of thousands of Catholics, Protestants, and other religious communities. Earlier this year, the Party installed Xia Baolong—who led a campaign to demolish thousands of crosses and churches in Zhejiang Province—to head the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office.
The U.S. government has been a champion for religious freedom in China. The State Department has consistently advocated on behalf of all religious minorities in China, while the Commerce Department and Customs and Border Protection have both taken action against companies implicated in rights abuses against Muslims. Last month, an overwhelming, bipartisan coalition of Members of Congress passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, which directs the administration to impose targeted sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for the mass detention of Muslims. Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed the Tibetan Policy and Support Act, which would enshrine concern for the succession of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in official U.S. policy, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to vote on the bill soon.
Now is the time to build upon this momentum and redouble our support for China’s beleaguered Christians. Last summer, Representative Vicki Hartzler introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives urging the Trump administration to strengthen U.S. religious freedom promotion on behalf of Chinese Christians. It also calls on the administration to raise religious freedom issues during any future trade-related negotiations with the Chinese government. Passing this resolution would constitute an important reaffirmation of U.S. support for China’s Christian communities.
In addition, we urge the administration to focus on pastors, priests, and other religious leaders who have been detained. Senior U.S. government officials should raise the names of Hu Shigen, Pastor Wang Yi, Zhang Shaojie, Bishop James Su Zhimin, and Alimujiang Yimiti during any meeting with senior Chinese officials. In addition, we urge U.S. diplomats to continue to press Chinese authorities to allow them to visit these Christian leaders in prison. Such prison visits are key to ensuring prisoners of conscience are not mistreated. The Chinese government’s systematic repression of faith will not disappear overnight, but through high-level, consistent advocacy we can secure better prison conditions or even early releases for some of these individuals.