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A year of deteriorating religious rights in China

BEIJING (UCAN): When Chen Zhenggao, the Minister for Housing, travelled to bustling Yiwu in Zhejiang in mid-October last year, his speech sent a chill through the whole Christian population of China, which by some estimates is as many as 100 million people.

The Zhejiang Daily reported at the time that Chen told local officials to battle against illegal constructions by learning from what Zhejiang had been experiencing over the past 15 months or so.

His words were not lost on the 150 housing and law enforcement officials present, as Zhejiang had been used the pretext of illegal structures to bulldoze churches and remove their crosses.

By Christmas 2014, reports said 500 churches had been targeted in the province. By Christmas 2015, the number had exploded to over 1,500.

In Tibetan monasteries, monks and nuns have complained in recent months that the Communist Party is interfering more in daily life than it has for years. In unsettled Xinjiang province, burqas were banned; so too was terrorist clothing.

After claiming 2014 to be the worst year for religious persecution in China since the Cultural Revolution, observers in and outside the country say 2015 saw the situation deteriorate still further.

Relations between China’s Christians and the Communist Party have not been this strained since the days of Mao Zedong.

“Authorities have lost the hearts of the people after the cross-removal campaign,” a former Catholic journalist in Zhejiang, who gave only her Christian name, Clare, said.

Although authorities succeeded in forcing Churches to display less ostentatious crosses in Zhejiang, few doubt the provincial government’s campaign has achieved anything except harden Christian resolve, as it certainly has not curbed the appetite to spread the word of God.

“It helped unite all the clergy to fight for their rights,” John, a catechist in Wenzhou, commented.

As the cross-removal campaign reached a crescendo mid-year, normally low key Christians and priests took to social media to announce a campaign to make mini-crosses and bishops took the rare step of publicly denouncing the authorities.

With the campaign winding down in Zhejiang, Christians say they now face something even worse—the cross-removal campaign was all about controlling the Church facades, but in recent weeks authorities have gone past the exterior and interfered in internal Church business as well.

In Wenzhou, Christians have reported that state officials are attending Church services on Sundays to silence critical voices. In other areas of Zhejiang, state media has reported that the authorities are putting up propaganda notices on Church pin-boards.

This is all part of a new campaign called five entries and transformations that aims to make Churches more Chinese and, by default, less foreign, while picking and choosing bible verses that correlate with party doctrine.

In short, the Chinese Communist Party is attempting to co-opt Christianity to its own political ends.

But Yang Fenggang, the director of the Centre of Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University, says it remains unclear whether its policy comes from the epicentre of the party or not, which will effect whether or not the campaign will continue.

He added that high-ranking party officials appear to disagree about whether Christianity should adapt to China, or China to Christianity, and a firm direction won’t be decided until a meeting on religious affairs scheduled to be chaired by the president, Xi Jinping, which appears to have been delayed, takes place.

“The multiple postponing of this meeting is a sign of Xi’s dissatisfaction with the work and direction of religious affairs and probably a sign of an impasse of internal debates and disagreements,” Yang commented.

Previously slated to take place at the end of 2015, the critical meeting now has no proposed date and, for China’s diverse religious communities, the future has become less certain than it has been for many years.

Whatever happens, few Chinese Christians appear hopeful of a reprieve from Xi’s strict, rule-of-law handling of the government in 2016. On China’s periphery, minority Tibetan Buddhists and ethnic Uyghur Muslims appear less optimistic still.

Last year started with an official ban on burqas in Xinjiang, then in May, Beijing extended what is in effect a state of emergency following a series of bloody attacks.

Stricter measures have seen the first mass trials in China in 20 years and thousands of additional troops deployed in cities, including Urumqi.

Alarmed by a series of bloody attacks blamed on the Uyghur population and recent violence overseas by the Islamic State, which released its first call to arms in Mandarin in December, Beijing has pushed ahead with a controversial anti-terror law.

International rights groups acknowledge China needs to tackle a surge in violence in the west of the country, but have also warned repeatedly that the law risks enshrining a vague catch-all to help Beijing target opponents—real and imagined.

In January last year, authorities in Tibet posted public notices offering rewards of up to 300,000 yuan ($372,000) to informants who tip off police ahead of violent terror attacks.

The main targets were vaguely described as “overseas terrorist organisations and their members’ activities inside China and those spreading religious extremism.”

Later in July, police in a Tibetan region of Sichuan province opened fire on protesters demanding the return of the body of the spiritual leader, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, who died after nearly 13 years in prison.

His conviction and 20-year sentence for a series of bombings in Chengdu in 2002 remains disputed by most Tibetans.

Although he represents the most high-profile case last year, overall, more Tibetan monks and nuns were confirmed to have been detained—31 in 2015 compared with 21 the previous year, according to a tally made by the London-based Free Tibet.

“We have seen more solo protests by monks, which inevitably lead to arrest, but also a number of arrests which seem intended to prevent protest,” Yang said.

In one recent case, a video showed five policemen wrestling a 25-year-old man to the ground after tossing prayer papers into the air and calling for the Dalai Lama to live a long life at a market in Kardze in late November. His whereabouts remains unknown.

As Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, turned 80 in July, Beijing seemed to turn up criticism of his Middle Way approach of greater Tibetan autonomy in an official policy paper released in April, dismissing any hope of future talks.

“(This) clearly shows that China has hardened its position on Tibet,” Sonam Dagpo, a spokesperson for the Tibetan government in exile, who has served as a negotiator with Beijing, said.

Then suddenly, two weeks after the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday, a Tibetan delegation returned from Beijing saying more dialogue would soon follow. It had been five years since the previous official talks.

China remains reluctant to discuss further autonomy with the Tibetan government in exile. But as Beijing seeks cooperation from the Dalai Lama in working out his messy reincarnation, it appears to be more willing to talk than at any other point this decade.


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