It is a wintry season for religious freedom in China.
Freedom in general is suffering in China, as this article in the New York Times explained vividly at the beginning of the year. The Maoists are back, apparently. Religious freedom, whether for Muslim Uighurs, Tibetan Buddhist, Falun Gong, or Christians, is worsening distinctly. China already holds a position in the most repressive tier of the world’s violators, as attested by the the rigorous rankings of the Pew Forum. It seems little interested in moving upwards.
Take the case of Beijing’s treatment of the Catholic Church. Over many months, Pope Francis has been signaling interest in rapprochement, even declining to meet with the Dalai Lama in the Vatican late last year so as not to offend the Chinese government. But this regime is not returning the affection.
For the Catholic Church, religious freedom is in one sense a more demanding claim than for other religions: it involves respect for its transnational communion of bishops, centered on the Bishop of Rome, the successor to Peter. Dating back to the 1950s, the Government of China has strongly managed, regulated, and constricted the Catholic Church through the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), which rejects the authority of the Pope over the Church by requiring bishops to be ordained under its own authority.
In this manner, China’s regime violates the freedom of the Catholic Church with respect to its essential structure. The Church’s authority to ordain its own bishops is the prerogative that it has insisted upon most vigorously against the encroachments of kings, emperors, and dictators, dating from the Investiture Conflict of the 11th century, to Henry VIII’s seizure of the Church in England in the 16th century, to the French Revolution, to modern Communist dictatorships.
Admittedly, complexity has entered the relationship between the Vatican and China in the past three decades or so as the Vatican has come to recognize the authority of many bishops ordained under the CPCA. Still, the fundamental denial of the Church’s freedom by the CPCA arrangement persists. Over the past half-decade, the Chinese government has become more entrenched in its hostility to the Church’s hierarchy by ordaining several bishops against the wishes of Rome. A news story of today reveals that China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs intends to continue this practice. In addition, the government has imprisoned a bishop who refused to join the CPCA soon after his ordination and persists in holding Chinese Christians in jail for worshipping contrary to government regulations.
Accompanying these stories are the reports that have surfaced over the past year of the Chinese government destroying churches and removing crosses, especially in Zhejiang Province. One news story reports that that “2014 saw the worst persecution of Chinese Christians in a generation.” During this year, 60 churches were destroyed in Zhejiang province.
Still another recent story in the Financial Times documents the general climate of increasing religious repression in China.
Updated, February 2, 2015. See this story on China’s crackdown on western textbooks.