Beijing Olympics Spark Debate About Religious Freedom in China


The U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution Wednesday calling on China to end abuses of human rights in advance of the upcoming Beijing Olympics.

The non-binding act called on China's government to end its crackdown on Tibet and Uyghur Muslims and to end its support of regimes in Sudan and Burma in order to ensure the games "take place in an atmosphere that honors the Olympic traditions of freedom and openness."

Wednesday's vote came on the heels of calls for President Bush to join world leaders including British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in boycotting the Olympics' opening ceremony Aug. 8.

Bush has said he considers the Olympics a sporting and not a political event and that not attending would offend Chinese hosts and hurt efforts at diplomacy.

A leading critic of that decision, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., said if Bush won't skip the Olympics he should at least deliver a major speech in China similar to one by Ronald Reagan during his historic visit to Moscow in 1988.

The president met Tuesday with five Chinese dissidents, who urged him to stress religious freedom and human rights in messages to both Chinese leaders and people.

One of the five, Xiqiu (Bob) Fu, spoke previously to the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in Washington July 22. In his speech Fu, president of the Christian organization China Aid Association, claimed Chinese authorities were cracking down on dissidents, including leaders of unregistered house churches, because they fear human-rights activity might evolve into riots.

Those weren't Fu's first visits to Washington. In February he was at the Library of Congress to accept the 2007 John Leland Religious Liberty Award from the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of Southern Baptist Convention.

Fu, a former student protestor, immigrated to the United States in 1996 after reportedly serving time in jail for starting an unregistered house church and school in China. Since 2002 he has monitored what his organization calls "religious persecution in China, focusing especially on the unofficial church."

In his acceptance speech in February, Fu mentioned an estimated 60 million to 80 million Christians in China who view the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, China's registered church, with suspicion. Some, he added, view the movement founded in 1954 as "a deceptive arm of a Communist government created to control and undermine the purity of their faith."

Fu has been harshly critical of leaders of the TSPM-related China Christian Council, an umbrella organization for Protestant churches founded in 1980 that belongs to the World Council of Churches.

In 2006 he described a traveling China Bible Ministry Exhibition in three U.S. cities, sponsored in partnership with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, as "nothing but a PR campaign to cover up the religious persecution image" and accused then-CCC president Cao Shengjie, the first woman to be elected to the post, of "spread[ing] lies to the American people."

Contacted in February about Fu's comments, Theresa Carino, coordinator of the Hong Kong office of Amity Foundation, a Christian organization created in 1985 to promote education, social services, health and rural development across China, called it "really unfortunate" that the SBC chose give its religious-freedom award to Fu.

"From where I am, I have to say that his efforts have not been helpful at all in helping churches gain more political space in China," she said. "On the contrary, he seems to be spreading misinformation overseas about Amity and the China Christian Council. Perhaps he is painting a black picture of the religious situation to justify what he is doing."

Carino said the Bible exhibition, which also visited Hong Kong and Germany, was an initiative of churches in China and partners in other places. She said the fact the Chinese church can now print Bibles in large quantities "ought to be something to be celebrated."

Amity Printing Company printed its 50 millionth Bible last year. Originally designed to print 600,000 Bibles a year, the Nanjing printing plant now is capable of handling 6 million copies a year and plans to double that capacity to 12 million during 2008.

In partnership with the United Bible Societies, Chinese churches are prepared to hand out more than 110,000 Bibles and Gospel booklets in the Olympic village and five other cities hosting events. The Beijing Organizing Committee gave the China Christian Council special permission to use the Beijing Olympic logo free of charge on the cover, thought to be the first-ever use of the official logo on a religious text.

The official Web site of the Beijing Olympics says planners will provide services for the five major world religions--Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and Judaism--including worship services, prayer rooms and religious literature. It also lists places of worship for visitors.

Christians within the Beijing church community are training as Olympic chapel volunteers. The China Christian Council put an Olympic prayer chain on its Web site. Twenty large churches in Beijing are looking forward to Olympic visitors

U.S. politicians and religious conservatives aren't the only ones criticizing Beijing's actions leading up to the games.

Amnesty International said the Chinese government didn't deliver on promises to improve human rights prior to the Olympics, but instead was cracking down on dissident voices in an effort to present an image of stability and harmony to the world.

USA Today reported Thursday that China broke earlier promises that journalists covering the Olympics would have "complete freedom" to report by blocking access to Web sites including Amnesty International and those related to Tibet or Falun Gong, a system of spiritual exercises outlawed by China's government in 1999 as a dangerous cult.

For their part, Chinese authorities accused Westerners of meddling in China's internal affairs and claimed they were working to create a safe and secure environment for both athletes and guests, not to silence critics.

The Chinese Theological Review carried several addresses from the recent eighth National Chinese Christian Conference arguing that Chinese Christianity needs to uphold the "three-self" principles of self-government, self-support and self-propagation in order to continue to shake off control by the West and shed its image as a "foreign religion," a label that haunted the church for a century because of its popular association with China's colonial past.

"Christians should be good citizens," one article read. "They should love the country and love the church, be law-abiding and be in harmony in their families and with their neighbors. They should serve the society, benefit the people and fulfill their social responsibilities."

Other articles criticized infiltration by overseas groups seeking to "westernize" China, use religion to advance their political ideas and disrupt harmony by maligning the three-self church and introducing doctrinal differences that undermine China's commitment to a post-denominational church.

China's Communist Party is on record as recognizing "the positive function in religion in promoting social harmony."

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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