NASHVILLE, Tenn. With increased frequency, the Chinese government is persecuting house churches and banishing foreign Christians from the country, presumably to squelch voices who might draw attention to the plight of religious minorities in the nation surrounding the Beijing Olympics.
"We seem to be seeing a crackdown ahead of the Olympics. Whether that's to send a message to the church to lay low or whether it is to make sure that anybody who might cause international embarrassment is taken care of ahead of time, I don't know," Todd Nettleton, a spokesman for Voice of the Martyrs, told Baptist Press. "But we do see an increase in the level of arrests, the level of house church services being raided, that sort of activity.
"We also have seen a number of foreigners who are Christians who, when the time came to renew their visa they have been denied a new visa and told that they had to leave the country," Nettleton added. "So it's happening both amongst the house churches of native Chinese people as well as foreign Christians who are living and working in China. They're finding that they're no longer welcome."
Nettleton noted that about 20 percent of China's Christians are part of the official church the Three-Self Patriotic Movement or the Catholic version approved by the government while the other 80 percent go to unregistered or unofficial churches.
"They don't actually have permission from the government to meet together, so their activities are illegal and they can be arrested, they can serve time in prison, their meetings can be broken up because they don't have that official government seal of approval on their meetings," Nettleton said of the 80 percent.
Nettleton said his best guess for the increase in persecution is that the Chinese government views the Beijing Olympics, scheduled for Aug. 8-24, as sort of a coming out party where the eyes of the world will be on them.
"The Olympics are a huge event, there will be a huge amount of international attention focused on China," he said. "They want to make sure that they put their best foot forward, and having Christians doing some sort of protest or drawing attention to the religious freedom situation there would not be good PR. It would not make a good impression on the visitors from around the world, so they're going to do everything they can to make sure that doesn't happen."
China Aid Association, in its 2007 Persecution Report released in February, said the 60 reported cases of persecution against house churches in China last year was up 30.4 percent from 2006. CAA, a Christian rights defense organization, is based in Texas.
The total number of people persecuted last year was 788, up 18.5 percent from 2006, China Aid said regarding 2007 statistics, and the total number of people arrested and detained was 693, up 6.6 percent. Sixteen people were sentenced to imprisonment, down 5.9 percent, according to China Aid records.
"Besides these figures, two types of cases need special attention: There are 17 cases of physical abuse in the persecution (beating, torture and psychological abuse), up 325 percent from that of 2006, and the number abused was 35, up 400 percent," China Aid said. "The other type is that many foreign Christians also suffered persecution mainly in the form of arrest, interrogation and expulsion from the country. The total number of people in this category is over 100 (84 of them are confirmed), up 833 percent from the year before."
China Aid, in its persecution report, identified four categories of persecution: against house church leaders, against house churches in urban areas, against Christian publications and against foreign Christians and missionaries.
Among the foreign Christians and missionaries who were interrogated and expelled from China, most were from the West and a few were from South Korea and other countries, China Aid said.
"Some of these foreign Christians were not missionaries, but had their own secular professions in China," the report said. "However, as they preached the Christian belief or were associated with local Christians and churches, they were persecuted by the government. This is the largest persecution operation of expelling foreign Christians since the early 1950s when the [Communist Party of China] drove out all of the foreign missionaries."
Nettleton of Voice of the Martyrs said that despite the crackdown he doesn't see a high probability of Western Christians being harassed during the Beijing Olympics.
"I know there are some groups who are specifically going to work on evangelism efforts during the Olympics. I don't know how it will be different from what they did in Athens [in 2004] other than the fact that in China they will need to keep a little lower profile," Nettleton said. "They'll need to be a little more cautious about the nature of their activities, about what they're doing, about drawing attention to themselves.
"But the reality is that, in my opinion, the chances of a foreigner being arrested for religious activities during the Olympics are very slim because the world will be watching and the Chinese government is so aware of the need for good PR and the need to sort of make this problem go away," he added.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in February urged President Bush to request to meet with people detained by the Chinese government for religious reasons when he attends the Olympics in August. The commission also asked Bush to attend an unregistered house church to draw attention to the Chinese government's religious freedom violations.
Bush, during a White House news conference Feb. 28, said he would raise concerns about freedom of religion in China when he meets with Chinese President Hu Jintao in August."Every time I meet with him I talk about religious freedom and the importance of China's society recognizing that if you're allowed to worship freely, it will benefit the society as a whole; that the Chinese government should not fear the idea of people praying to a God as they see fit," Bush said. "A whole society, a healthy society, a confident society is one that recognizes the value of religious freedom."