As the West prepares to celebrate the 2,000th anniversary of Jesus' birth, the leaders of the East's communist titan are marking the occasion by intensifying arrests of Christians across China.
The Communist Party is using a new law initially aimed at crushing the Falun Gong spiritual movement to provide cover for attacks on underground Christian groups, say Western diplomats and rights organizations.
Earlier this month, Beijing's top rulers branded 10 Christian sects as "cults," and "ordered the police to arrest the ringleaders of the groups," says Frank Lu, who heads a human rights watchdog based in Hong Kong.
Mr. Lu says more than 100 Christian leaders have already been rounded up in a nationwide crackdown in the past few weeks. He says the blacklisted fringe groups, with names such as The Shouters and Oriental Lightning, have never committed any acts of violence or shown other traits of groups that might be called cults in the West.
Lu says that "more than 40 million Chinese Christians worship in secret house churches to avoid the tight controls the government places on state-authorized churches," and adds all these followers could eventually be targeted in the current crackdown.
The party's moral legitimacy and popular belief in Communist ideology are evaporating, and Beijing's rulers fear the rise of any group that might claim the allegiance of the masses.
Chinese President "Jiang Zemin is personally leading the crusade against Falun Gong, and the clampdown is being accompanied by a pro-atheism campaign," says a Western diplomat.
The diplomat says that following the detention of tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners since a midsummer ban, "It was probably inevitable that the crackdown would be extended to other religions." He says "beatings and arrests are being carried out against Buddhist monks in Tibet, Protestant house churches in Henan Province, and Catholics in Hebei. This religious crackdown is all about independent organizations becoming alternative sources of power," he adds.
A liberal, midlevel official in the Communist Party says he opposes but understands the ongoing battle to stop the spread of Christianity and other religions here.
"The Party saw the Catholic church join with the Solidarity workers' movement to topple communism in Poland in the 1980s, and it doesn't want to see the same thing happen here," he says.
In its first report on religious freedom and repression worldwide, the US State Department said that Chinese leaders "perceive unregulated religious gatherings as a potential challenge to their authority ... and an alternative to communist dogma." The State Department recently informed Congress that it would continue a ban on the sale of crime-control equipment to China unless Beijing's "serious violations of religious freedoms" cease.
To curtail religious practices, the party and police used "prolonged detention, torture, and reeducation of Tibetan monks and nuns ... [and] some Protestant and Catholic Christians," the department said in a notice to Congress.
Liu Nanhai, a legal scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think-tank, says "China is outraged that the US is trying to interfere in our sovereign affairs by imposing sanctions for so-called violations of religious freedoms here." Mr. Liu says "Washington is using US standards on religion to judge us, and is trying to use American law to police the rest of the world."
But an American official here who asked not to be identified says the US is "trying to hold China up to its commitments under the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Covenant on Civil and Political Rights," which Beijing signed last year. Both those documents provide guarantees on freedom of belief, but China is strengthening rather than abolishing its controls on churches, temples, and mosques. Beijing's rubber-stamp parliament passed new laws on "The Crime of Organizing or Using Evil Religions" in October.
The law defines evil religions as "illegal organizations that use religion, qigong, or other labels to deify their founders, spread superstition and heresy to misguide others, or lead members to endanger society." The vague law "is aimed at putting a legal veneer on a party-ordered attack on religious groups," says the Western diplomat.
The government estimates that China now has 100 million Buddhists, 18 million Muslims, 15 million Protestants, and 4 million Catholics who belong to the sanctioned churches. In its report on religious freedom, the State Department estimates that about 10 million Catholics and 30 to 80 million Protestants worship in house churches.
The report adds that "in certain localities, as many as 20 to 25 percent of party officials may engage in religious activities." This year, Beijing issued an order to its 60 million Communist Party members to abandon religious beliefs, reminding the 2.5-million-strong Army that it is illegal for soldiers to take part in any religious activities.
Lu says that "if the new law and order to arrest members of underground churches is applied across the country, China is going to have to start building a lot of new labor camps to hold all these Christians."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society