The New York Times

August 18, 2006

China Adds Restrictions in Effort to Shake the Faith of Independent Congregations


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 100-degree heat, there was a crowd at the little Protestant church this Sunday. 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.''

Two weeks earlier, as many as 500 police officers surrounded the congregants 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 church 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 law regulating religious affairs was introduced in March 2005, provincial and local governments have begun a series of crackdowns on underground churches across China. The vaguely worded new rules call for local governments to ''standardize'' the management of religion nationwide. The Chinese crackdown, which also affects other faiths, especially Buddhism in Tibet and Islam in the far western 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 the 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 closely monitored and 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, an American Christian advocacy group that monitors religious freedom in China, 1,958 pastors were arrested at churches like these in the last year alone.

Although the crackdown is decentralized, with each province and locality carrying out the repression on its own, the pattern is as unmistakable as the constant stream of incidents. In one recent case, in Tongwei, a village in eastern Anhui Province in late July, 90 children were reportedly detained with 40 adults after the police raided a Protestant Sunday school, calling the church teachings ''illegal evangelism.'' Around the same time, in Hebei Province in the north, as many as 90 protesters were arrested after demanding the release of two clergymen from the underground Roman Catholic church, who had been 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. ''The authorities sense a need to prevent the next generation from getting into this. There is an attempt to convince young people that being involved in religion will make things more complicated for them in school and in other ways.''

In the Hangzhou incident, the authorities have defended the demolition of the nearly completed church, saying that it was being built without proper authorization. ''It is clear that this church was an illegal structure, it did not have the approval of the religious affairs bureau, or the government,'' a police official told Agence-France Presse. The authorities worked hard, though, to suppress news of the event. One parishioner, who spoke to foreign journalists about the destruction, was detained. Zan Aizong was arrested and then fired from his job as a reporter for a local newspaper after he wrote of the church demolition on a Chinese Web site. ''The government said no one was hurt and that no riot happened,'' he wrote. ''But real people were injured, so where is the truth and justice?''

According to a lawyer for the parishioners, most of them poor peasants, church leaders had long sought a permit to build a new place of worship but had been frustrated at every turn by administrative obstacles. At one point, parishioners were told they could erect a church on a narrow triangular plot under an elevated highway. "It was totally inappropriate for a church, and such a location gives us reason to believe the government doesn't want them to build a church,'' said the lawyer, Li Boguang. Asked why this was, he said: ''The Chinese government is an atheistic government. They are afraid of the Christians and don't want to see Christianity develop, so they find all kinds of means to prevent it from growing freely.''

As the foreign visitors prepared to leave the church service, they were approached by a woman who had watched them intently throughout the service, most of the time hiding behind a palm-frond fan. ''What a situation,'' she said, imploringly, her face flush with emotion. ''Our church was half built, and the government demolished it, just like that.''

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company