SINCE the bad old days of the Cultural Revolution, when religion was outlawed and churches were desecrated, the government of China has been anxious to suggest to the outside world that religious observance is now permitted even in a communist state. As far as Christians are concerned, they are a small minority in China - perhaps 5 percent of the total population.
But even before the recent clampdown in China, the regime regarded Christian churches as suspicious agents of foreign influence. Thus government policy has been to create Christian church groups that are official branches of the government and subject to government control. For the Protestants there is the Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement, for Roman Catholics the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
Chinese Christians operating outside these organizations are subject to harassment, and in some cases lengthy prison terms for ``crimes'' under Chinese law such as distributing ``reactionary'' religious publications and conducting ``illegal'' religious meetings.
A Protestant pastor was arrested last year for his attendance at a Beijing service led by American evangelist Billy Graham.
How Christians have fared in the current Chinese crackdown on human rights is not clear. But in Hebei province, home of the 27th Army that massacred student demonstrators in Beijing's Tienanmen Square last month, armed forces a month earlier stormed a largely Roman Catholic village. According to eyewitnesses a number of people were killed and wounded in reprisal for setting up a tent to hold unauthorized worship services.
The plight of Chinese Christians has been underlined by an American fact-finding team that visited China in May. Sponsored by the Puebla Institute, a lay Roman Catholic human rights group, and the Trinitarian Fathers, the team has just published its report. It is endorsed, in addition, by the Institute on Religion and Democracy, an interdenominational Christian organization dedicated to expanding religious freedom worldwide.
Accompanying the report is a list of 12 Protestant pastors and seven Roman Catholic priests (four of them bishops) held as prisoners of conscience in China. The list is being widely circulated in Congress and among others.
According to the team, some of these religious prisoners have only had two or three years of freedom over the last three decades.
One bishop is under house arrest so strict that a guard watches him in the same room 24 hours a day.
Despite all this harassment, the team found that at least up until the recent crackdown, Christianity seemed to be growing in China. The Chinese church, it reported, ``is not the symbol of opposition or a rallying point for political dissidents (as in Poland or Chile),'' but it does represent for many ``ideals of respect for human rights and liberty.''
The team believes that the Chinese government is sensitive to pressure, both external and within China, on the issue of religious persecution. A recent statement from the Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement to local officials in one province warned them to be less severe with their repression since organizations, particularly in Hong Kong, were monitoring the situation of the church in China.
The American fact-finding team concluded that through its official religious organizations, the Chinese government ``systematically controls'' the Christian churches. Clergy and congregations are forced to register. Clergy are ``licensed.'' Unregistered Christians, says the team's report, ``harbor deep mistrust toward the leaders of these Patriotic Associations, accusing them of having identified and betrayed independent Christians.''
The team interviewed a Catholic priest in Canton, a member of one of the official religious organizations, who maintained there was complete religious freedom in China, that people are permitted to attend church and receive literature. His assurances, said the team, ``stood in stark contrast with the testimony of others who are harassed, restricted, and persecuted for their faith.''