In what is a genuine case of government-sponsored religious persecution, Chinese authorities have reportedly removed crosses from 1,200 to 1,700 churches over the past two years in an apparent attempt to keep the symbol from public view.
The New York Times reported last week that the campaign has been mostly restricted to the country’s heavily Christian Zhejiang province, but human rights activists fear it will soon expand.
President Xi Jinping announced at a recent “religious affairs” conference that religions must “Sinicize,” or become more Chinese. Xi also claimed that some religious groups had provided an opening for “overseas infiltration.”
Some Christians have rebelled against the cross removals; approximately 50 church members were injured in one recent confrontation with authorities. “It was quiet late last year,” one anonymous Christian told The Times.“But the government is now making it clear that all of the crosses will go.”
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has designated China a Tier One “country of particular concern” in its most recent annual report. China shares this dubious distinction with Myanmar, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and according to USCIRF, its policies are particularly oppressive.
“The past year was marked by the Chinese government’s deliberate and unrelenting crackdown on human rights and dissent,” the report says. “China’s leadership has long justified its harsh policies, including against Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and others, by asserting the importance of confronting the so-called ‘three evils’ – separatism, terrorism, and religious extremism.”
These ‘three evils’ do superficially appear to justify the label. But the Chinese government has attached sweeping definitions to each label. In practice, its war against the three evils results in precisely the sort of oppression documented by The Times.
USCIRF reports that membership in one of the country’s five state-sanctioned religions is no guarantee of safety---a fact Zhejiang’s Catholics and Protestants know all too well. Members of the Chinese Communist Party are required to be atheists and clergy of all faiths are frequently accused of dangerous “cult” activity. Although Islam is officially recognized by the Chinese government, Uighur Muslims have been forbidden from observing Ramadan and authorities have banned beards and face veils. It’s a politically motivated crackdown. Uighur Muslims mostly live in Xinjiang province, and many support a Xinjiang-based independence movement.
The “cult” label has proven especially dangerous for members of banned religions, like Falun Gong; Falun Gong practitioners have reportedly been sent to camps and subjected to organ harvesting. Experts disagree with the Chinese government’s decision to classify the large movement a cult, but authorities have refused to relent. The Global Post speculated in 2014 that the government’s intransigence likely stemmed from the fact that Falun Gong practitioners have become vocal critics of the communist regime.
What is reportedly happening in China is real religious persecution. It bears no resemblance to the case of Aaron and Melissa Klein, who still believe they have a “religious freedom” right to violate Oregon’s anti-discrimination law. It bears no resemblance to the case of Joanna Duka and Breanna Koski, calligraphy artists who recently filed suit against the city of Phoenix, Ariz., because its anti-discrimination ordinance forbids them from refusing to serve same-sex couples. Duka and Koski haven’t even been asked to serve a same-sex couple, but that didn’t prevent the pair from joining forces with the Religious Right legal group Alliance Defending Freedom to claim their rights had been violated. These are just a few of many examples.
It’s laughable to label these cases in the United States examples of anti-Christian persecution when Christians and other faith groups in China and elsewhere face genuine oppression. But the Religious Right has a deeply entrenched martyr complex, making it unlikely that the Kleins and others will gain a sense of perspective anytime soon.
Follow Sarah Jones online at @onesarahjones