Prayers in the kitchen: Why religious groups fear a loss of freedom in China

By Saša Petricic for CBC News

One by one, they climb the dim, concrete stairs to the third-floor apartment. They come here every Friday morning, about a dozen in all. They are the determined, the devout, the dissidents. On their way to pray.

Their church is a small studio apartment where Pastor Xu Yonghai lives in a working-class part of Beijing. A cross on the wall and a pile of Bibles in the kitchen are the only clues that this place is part of China's fast-growing Christian movement.

At least half of the country's 70 million adherents attend unauthorized services like this one, in thousands of these so-called house churches.

"In the official churches, the priests are under the control of the Communist Party," says Xu.

"We follow the words of Jesus. And if Jesus were alive, he wouldn't join the Communist Party. He would protest human rights and would probably be crucified again."

This house church was established in 1989, shortly after the Tiananmen Square democracy protests were crushed by the Chinese military.

The police watch this, but so far they have not prevented it, as they have with other house churches.

Christian and other religious groups worry all such gatherings may soon be targets for the government, under a new, stricter version of the 10-year-old Regulations on Religious Affairs.

This one cites national security as an overriding priority. Beijing has not said when it goes into effect, but most assume it is already the law of the land.

Many of those who have gathered around Xu's dining table have been involved in anti-government demonstrations. Like Xu, most have spent time in jail.

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Interview with Prasenjit Duara on culture, religion, and the environment in China

By Ian Johnson for the New York Times

Prasenjit Duara is one of the most original thinkers on culture and religion in Asia.

A 66-year-old historian of China, he was born in Assam, India, and educated at the University of Delhi, the University of Chicago and Harvard. He later taught at the University of Chicago, Stanford and the National University of Singapore and now teaches at Duke.

Professor Duara began his career with a pioneering study of Chinese religion: “Culture, Power, and the State: Rural North China, 1900-1942.” This work, published in 1988, helped redefine how many people thought of Chinese religion, showing it to be one of the most powerful forces in traditional Chinese society. His subsequent books reflect a broadening of interests to include topics such as nationalism and imperialism. His latest work, “The Crisis of Global Modernity: Asian Traditions and a Sustainable Future,” brings many of these strands together, along with issues such as climate change.

In a recent interview in Beijing, Professor Duara discussed Buddhist environmentalism, what aspect of religion most alarms the Chinese government and the South Manchuria Railway Company.

Most people would have no problem accepting the first two premises of your new book: that we have an environmental crisis and that it is due to recklessly fast economic growth. But more counterintuitive is your argument that there’s a solution beyond nongovernmental organizations and international frameworks like the United Nations. You think faith has a role, too.

We need the NGOs and the U.N., and we also need bioengineering and market mechanisms. But one of the most important factors that has emerged in the past 10 or 20 years — slowly, but catching on — is that the most effective communities are in some ways the most traditional, too. They have integrated ideas about nature and community that are faith-based.

In Taiwan, for example, I’ve been very interested in “fojiao huanbao” — Buddhist environmentalism. I was there this summer, and there are large-scale Buddhist groups that have taken to saving the environment.

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China bans Uighur parents from encouraging or forcing children into religion in Xinjiang

By Nandini Krishnamoorthy for the International Business Times

China has announced fresh restrictions on the culture and religion of its minority Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province. Under new education rules, any parent or guardian encouraging or forcing their children into religious activities will be imprisoned, the Chinese government said on Wednesday (12 October).

Discord between the authorities and the indigenous Uighur community in China's far west has a long history. China has often been accused of trying to suppress the Uighurs, which the government has strongly denied.

Although China officially gives freedom of religion, it has banned children from taking part in any religious activity. In the last few years, authorities have cracked down on several underground Muslim religious schools or madrassas, in Xinjiang, according to a Reuters report.

The new rules will come into effect on 1 November from when parents or guardians cannot "organise, lure or force minors into attending religious activities".

Parents or guardians are not only banned from promoting extremist beliefs in children, but also from forcing them to dress in extremist clothing or other symbols. The ban includes any form of religious activity in schools.

"Any group or person has the right to stop these kinds of behaviours and report them to the public security authorities," the rules state.

China had earlier introduced rules banning beards for men and head coverings for women.

Under the rules, parents failing to keep their children away from harmful "extremist or terrorist ways" will have to send such children to special schools to "receive rectification".

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Chinese Jews of Ancient Lineage Huddle Under Pressure

By CHRIS BUCKLEY for The New York Times

KAIFENG, China — The rooms where ruddy-faced Chinese men and women once assembled to pray in Hebrew and Mandarin are silent. Signs and exhibits that celebrated centuries of Jewish life have disappeared. An ancient well, believed to be the last visible remnant of a long-demolished synagogue, was recently buried under concrete and a pile of earth.

After locking down Buddhist monasteries in Tibet and tearing down church crossesin eastern China, President Xi Jinping’s campaign against unapproved religion andforeign influence has turned to an unlikely adversary: a small group of Jews whose ancestors settled in this now faded imperial city near the banks of the Yellow River more than 1,000 years ago.

A few hundred residents had staged a lively, sometimes contentious rebirth of Kaifeng’s Jewish heritage in recent decades, with classes, services and proposals to rebuild the lost synagogue as a museum. Some residents even migrated to Israel. For years, the city government tolerated their activities, seeing the Jewish link as a magnet for tourism and investment.

But since last year, the authorities have come down hard on the revival, in an example of how even the smallest spiritual groups can fall under the pall of the Communist Party’s suspicion. The government has shut down organizations that helped foster Jewish rediscovery, prohibited residents from gathering to worship for Passover and other holidays, and removed signs and relics of the city’s Jewish past from public places.

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Who Are the Kaifeng Jews — and Why Is China ‘Cracking Down’ on Them?

By Sam Kestenbaum for Forward

Recent months have brought reports that descendants of Jews in Kaifeng, China are under threat. Activists call it a government “crackdown.”

Police have shut down the only Jewish learning center in Kaifeng, helmed by the Israeli activist group Shavei Israel, say activists. A well that community members identify as their historic mikveh, for ritual Jewish bathing, was reportedly blocked. Foreign Jewish tour groups are said to have been barred from entering the city. And community members are allegedly being monitored and questioned.

Who are these descendants of Jews in Kaifeng? Are they being threatened and why?

Who are they?

Today there are up to 1,000 people in Kaifeng China who identify as descendants of Jews. They come from eight clans, but all claim descent from Jews who travelled along the Silk Road and settled here, establishing a presence by the 10th century in Kaifeng. In 1163, residents built a synagogue. During the Ming Dynasty, Kaifeng Jewry may have numbered as many as 5,000 people.

But the group’s numbers waned. Fires and floods destroyed religious infrastructure. The last rabbi of the community died sometime in the first half of the 19th century, according to Shavei Israel, an Israeli organization active in Kaifeng.

In the beginning of the 20th century, European Christian missionaries hoped to rekindle the community’s religious memory and also introduce the New Testament. But the Kaifeng descendants had little interest, apparently. “No spark of interest in their history and in the divine heritage of Israel could be aroused in them,” bemoaned one Anglican bishop. “They were Jews no longer.”

China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s wiped out almost all signs of Jewish practice. There are now no more than 1,000 members who believe they have Jewish backgrounds.

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1,000 Evictions from Tibetan Buddhist Centers

From Human Rights Watch:

(New York) – Chinese authorities are reportedly forcing at least 1,000 religious adherents to withdraw from two major Tibetan Buddhist institutions, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should resolve genuine safety and health issues at the Buddhist institutions without infringing on the rights to religious belief and freedom of movement.

“Chinese authorities should address concerns about overcrowded religious institutions by allowing Tibetans to establish more institutes and build more facilities,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “China’s government should respect its own constitution and international legal obligations and permit full freedom of religious practice.”

The evictions follow demolitions in late July at the Tibetan Buddhist institute Larung Gar in Serta (Ch.: Seda) county, Kardze (Ganzi) prefecture in Sichuan province. The demolitions, which the authorities said were necessary in order to carry out “correction and rectification,” reportedly prompted three suicides.

At least half of the more than 10,000 monks and nuns at Larung Gar, believed to be the largest Buddhist teaching institution in the world, face eviction following the demolition of numerous residences. The authorities have also pressured family members of certain nuns at Larung Gar and Yachen Gar, another major religious institute, to summon their relatives home or face punishment.

Since mass demolitions began at Larung Gar, the monastery’s leaders have appealed to residents to avoid confrontations with government-employed demolition crews.

However, three nuns at Larung Gar committed suicide in late July or early August in protest of the mass demolitions. Two of the nuns, Rinzin Drolma and Tsering Drolma, left notes referring to the demolitions or to government “harassment,” according to several media reports. An unconfirmed media report noted that another nun attempted suicide but was saved by friends.

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Chinese bishop arrested as tension with Vatican grows

By Carey Lodge for Christian Today

A Chinese bishop has been arrested by police and removed from his diocese in a city with a thriving Christian population.

Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin, coadjutor bishop of Wenzhou, was detained by authorities last week.

According to Asia News, which is affiliated with the Catholic Church, the bishop was set to take over from Bishop Vincent Zhu Weifang, who died from cancer on Wedneday.

The Chinese authorities do not recognise Bishop Shao's leadership because he is not part of the government's state-approved Catholic body, and was instead appointed by the Vatican.

Relations have historically been strained between the Catholic Church and China's ruling Communist party over irreconcilable claims to authority. The Vatican does not accept the validity of episcopal consecrations by the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, and an underground Catholic Church refuses to compromise with the state and is loyal only to the Pope.

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Forced Clandestine Practice and Religious Persecution

By David Feder for the Federalist Society

"Persecution” is defined as “to cause to suffer because of belief.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 866 (10th ed. 1993).  Chinese government officials arrested Ting Xue for attending an unregistered Christian church, hit him with an electrically charged baton, threw him in a squalid cell for four days, and threatened him with serious punishment if he ever repeated the offense. When some of his fellow church members were caught shortly thereafter practicing underground, they arrested them and sentenced them to one year in prison. Fearing that he would soon suffer the same punishment simply for freely exercising his faith, Mr. Xue fled to the United States and applied for asylum. One would think that, if anyone had suffered because of his beliefs, it would be Mr. Xue. Nonetheless, the Board of Immigration Appeals dismissed his appeal from the immigration judge’s denial of asylum.

The Chinese government fears organizations—like Western religions—that might undermine its tight control over the country and its citizens. Accordingly, it has instituted its own state-controlled protestant Church—the “Three-Self Patriotic Movement”—which “manipulates and modifies doctrine and theology in an effort to eliminate elements of Christian faith that the Communist Party regards as incompatible with its goals and ideology.” So, for example, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement teaches that loyalty to the State and the Community Party come before loyalty to God. And the top leadership of the Movement has even considered simply getting rid of the book of Revelation. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government bans unregistered or “house” churches and seeks them out in order to arrest, imprison, and torture their leaders and members. 

Chinese police caught wind of Mr. Xue’s house church one day and raided it—imprisoning and interrogating all its members.  During his interrogation, Mr. Xue was hit across the head and beaten with an electrically charged baton. Afterward, the police threw him into a squalid and crowded jail cell with four other men where they shared a single wooden bucket for a toilet—a bucket not emptied during Mr. Xue’s entire imprisonment. The officers routinely mocked Mr. Xue and his companions, referring to themselves as the prisoners’ “God,” claiming the power to refuse to feed them, and taunting them to call on God for rescue.  After four days in these conditions, Mr. Xue’s family obtained his release at a costly price—15,000 yuan—which amounted to over half of Mr. Xue’s yearly 25,000 yuan salary. The government also forced Mr. Xue to sign a “guarantee letter”—a pledge not to attend underground church meetings lest he face severe punishment and required him to report to the police station weekly to ensure that he did not attend again a house church.

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David Feder is court-appointed pro bono appellate counsel to Mr. Xue in connection with his appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. 

China's new Tibet party chief urges stronger criticism of Dalai Lama

For Reuters. Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore.

China's newly appointed Communist Party chief of Tibet called for stronger denunciations of exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, state media said on Thursday, signaling Beijing's hardline is unlikely to change under his leadership.

China on Sunday named Wu Yingjie as Tibet's next party secretary, the region's top official, considered one of the country's most politically sensitive positions due to periodic anti-Chinese unrest in the devoutly Buddhist Himalayan region.

Communist troops marched in and took control of Tibet in 1950 in what Beijing calls a "peaceful liberation". Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959 following a failed uprising against the Chinese.

In excerpts of a speech carried on Thursday by the official Tibet Daily, Wu said, without elaborating, that the government must "deepen its exposure and criticism of the Dalai Lama".

Representatives of the Nobel Peace laureate held rounds of talks with China until 2010, but formal dialogue has stalled amid leadership changes in Beijing and a crackdown in Tibet.

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Prayer and religion banned in Chinese hospitals

By Heather Tomlinson for Christian Today

Hospitals in an eastern province of China have banned all kinds of religious activity, including receiving pastors, praying for the sick and preaching, in the latest crackdown on Christianity.

According to Asia News, an official Roman Catholic press agency, public hospitals have been told that "all forms of religious activity are banned". The Wenzhou Central Hospital was told to post the notice its walls, and nurses and other medical staff were told to inform patients and visitors.

Wenzhou, in Zhejiang province, has been dubbed the 'Jerusalem of China' because it has had so much missionary activity in the past, and now has around a million Christians living in the city.

"The religious activities in the hospital have never been encouraged," an unnamed employee at the hospital told the news agency. "But some prayed silently, which is understandable: on the other hand we are all here to support patients. But others made noise, reading the Bible or reciting prayers aloud. And that's not good".

Two years ago, authorities in the Zhejiang region started to remove crosses from buildings, and when two pastors protested they were sentenced to 12 and 14 years of imprisonment. Many human rights lawyers who have worked on behalf of these churches have been arrested.

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