Christians observing this week’s International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church find a description on the sponsor’s Web site describing China as being in “a state of intense spiritual struggle.”

“Hundreds of pastors and evangelists and thousands of Christian believers are imprisoned as political prisoners charged with subversion, or as criminals charged with illegal worship or ‘evil cult’ activity,” the Web site proclaims. “Some die from the mistreatment they receive in custody.”

Contrast that with recent comments by leaders of China’s officially recognized Protestant group stating that “there are no underground churches in China” and downplaying reports of harassment of Christians.

Religious freedom is a mixed bag in China and very much in the eye of the beholder. Some observers say violations of religious freedom continue or are getting worse. Others believe China’s move toward capitalism and other reforms have relaxed the government’s former suspicion of Christianity, and that Christians are increasingly valued as good citizens.

“In the final analysis a church is a church, and there can be no underground or above ground between them,” Presbyter Ji Jianhong, chairman of China’s Three-Self Patriotic Movement, said Oct. 22 through a translator at a press conference at the Chinese Embassy in Washington and quoted by Religion News Service.

The Rev. Cao Shengjie, president of the China Christian Council, dismissed reports of a thriving underground church and claimed “only a limited number” of churches have refused to register with the government,

Paul Marshall of the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House reacted to both, telling RNS: “They are wrong on both counts. There is an underground church, and it is persecuted.”

Freedom House, a watchdog group for human rights, ranked China among “the world’s most repressive regimes” in a recent report to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.

Amnesty International found continuing “serious human rights violations” in its most recent report on China, observing “in some respects the situation deteriorated” in 2002.

News reports in Western media routinely report on arrests of leaders of “underground” house churches. The interdenominational Voice of the Martyrs this week reported the sentencing of house church historian and writer Zhang Yi-nan to two years of “re-education through labor” for “subverting the Chinese government and social order” in Henan Province.

Leaders of China’s registered churches are sensitive to use of the term “underground” church, however, because it is often used to cast in a derogatory light those churches that “cooperate” with Communists, compared to the unregistered churches, which by inference are more “authentic.”

Secretary of State Colin Powell in March included China among six “countries of particular concern” for particularly severe restriction of religious freedom under the International Religious Freedom Act.

Chinese experts and scholars have in the past criticized the State Department reports as politically biased. They contend that by doing its own report every year, rather than working through the United Nations, the U.S. values confrontation over dialogue and violates the U.N. charter, which calls for safeguarding human rights without interfering in a country’s internal affairs. The U.S. also does not include itself in its human-rights reports, which critics view as a double standard.

Problems do exist for certain religious communities, particularly in isolated areas where local officials don’t reflect a general trend in society of opening up toward religion, the Rev. Cao said during an Oct. 15 visit to the National Council of Churches headquarters in New York City.

But Cao said the situation is improving. “Some people have a memory of the Cultural Revolution,” she said. “That ended more than 20 years ago. They take for granted things are the same. They are not.”

Cao said at a recent press conference in Washington that China’s government increasingly recognizes that religion can play a positive role in people’s lives.

The CCC launched a new social services department in June 2002, allowing it to work with churches in establishing clinics, kindergartens, orphanages and other social ministries, a step forward that would have been unthinkable 10 or 15 years ago, said Theresa Carino, a representative of the Amity Foundation who works in Hong Kong.

“I would not say there is an official policy of persecuting religious believers in China,” Carino said in an e-mail interview. That doesn’t mean there are no instances of human-rights violations, she said, but those probably depend largely on local conditions and on the attitudes of local officials and the believers themselves. She also noted that the Chinese state has placed limits on organized religion throughout its history. “This is not just a contemporary phenomenon,” she said.

Many reports of religious persecution in China involve crackdowns on Falun Gong, an exercise movement incorporating Buddhist and Taoist beliefs, which China outlawed in 1999.

But officials of the China Christian Council and Three-Self Patriotic Movement agree with Beijing’s labeling the movement an “evil cult” that must be stopped. “Falun Gong has nothing to do with the question of religious belief,” Cao said at the press conference in Washington. “It is an evil cult that has committed many crimes against the Chinese people.”

“We encourage our members to be a good Christian and a good citizen at the same time,” she said at the NCC headquarters in New York.

Chinese Protestants worry about the influence of cults on their own churches. One sect known as Eastern Lighting, for example, is known for converting Christian believers with heterodox views denying God’s omniscience and claiming that Christ’s Second Coming has happened in the form of a female Christ who has appeared in China.

The International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, started in 1996 to build awareness of Christian persecution and organize prayer both for oppressors and victims, this year is a weeklong emphasis, beginning Nov. 9 and ending Nov. 16, according to a Web site.

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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