In China: the Sign of the Fish

THE crackdown on Chinese Christians reported in this and other newspapers is another human-rights grievance President George Bush and other Western leaders should lodge against Beijing's hard-liners.

Chinese officials eased up on laws against the practice of religion after the Cultural Revolution. The assumption was that, with only a handful of churches in existence and no Christian cultural heritage, religion would only be a minor annoyance. The Communist Party also tolerated worship because this lured believers out from underground, allowing the party to keep an eye on them.

But the party got more than it bargained for. The number of Protestant churches has grown from 4,000 to 7,000 since 1987 - and those are official churches, sanctioned reluctantly by Beijing through the Chinese Christian Council. The real flourishing is in the many thousands of evangelical and Catholic home churches - where worshipers meet informally, as did first-century Christians. Last year the one Christian press, in Nanjing, printed 3 million Chinese Bibles. Demand still far exceeds supply.

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In order to stop the flowering of faith - which reaches from workers to intellectuals - the party issued Document No. 6, which limits worship to official churches and punishes offenders. Classic tactics of paranoid authoritarian regimes are employed - threats, harassments, job and educational restrictions, spies among believers, a culture of persecution. Some 300 Protestant home churches have been shut down in central and east China. "Blessed are ye when men shall revile you

The story is familiar from Eastern Europe. The Gospels give a freedom, mutuality, purpose, that transcends communist husks. They bring a different way of seeing society and social responsibility.

Beijing may wink at free-market approaches, since they pad party pockets and can be controlled. True Christianity cannot be so controlled. That's why Bejing fears it. The West should investigate the status of any arrested "home church" leaders.

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