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China tightens clamp on religious freedom

WENZHOU (SE): Authorities in Zhejiang province have moved against what has become a popular and successful ministry to the sick and dying by Christian people by banning all forms of religious activity in hospitals.

Ministry among the sick, as well as people who are isolated from their families has become a fast developing apostolate, with some entrepreneurial groups advertising among Christian communities for carers.

In November last year, Paul de Mena, who runs an in-home senior care company in China, wrote in China Blog Source that the large number of people in care homes and hospitals, especially those suffering from dementia and other diseases that make them difficult to care for, is creating a ready-made ministry for Christians.

De Mena says that he believes that Christians are highly suited for the work, because as many people in their sunset years begin to stare in the face of their own mortality they are both open to and in need of hearing the gospel message of eternal life and forgiveness.

However, in the highly Christian city of Wenzhou in Zhejiang province the authorities issued an edict on August 19 banning all forms of religious activity in public hospitals.

The Central Hospital of Wenzhou posted a notice to this effect in its main entrance, which local Christians found somewhat ironic, as the hospital was founded and run for years by a Protestant organisation.

Radio Free Asia reported that an employee at the hospital said, “Religious activities in hospitals have never been encouraged… but some people have been doing it on the quiet, which is understandable, seeing that we are all here to support patients.”

However, the new rules do not just ban patients from praying or chatting with others about religious issues, they also prevent pastors or priests, as well as lay ministers from visiting patients.

A spokesperson for the hospital said that anyone breaking the directive will be spoken to by the staff.

A pastor in Guangzhou, Ma Ke, told Radio Free Asia that he believes this is a further interference with the freedom of people to practice their religion and an infringement on their constitutional right to freely choose a religion or have no religion.

He added that to infringe on that right at a time of sickness, let alone when a patient may be facing death is a vicious limitation, as religion empowers people.

“It helps them to be more optimistic in accepting their treatment programmes,” he said. “It helps them face up to times of illness and also to face their own mortality.”

Although the proclamation was issued for Zhejiang, few believe that will be the end of its creep, saying that it is just a harbinger for the rest of the country.

While the regulation may partly be a response to a bit of insensitivity by visiting pastors, as hospital staff have complained about noisy singing and reading the bible in a loud voice, it seems a rather radical measure to simply curb a bit of religious boisterousness.

As de Mena reports, the work of Christian carers also has a ripple effect, touching not only those being looked after, but their families who are often living in far off cities as well.

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