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Mark Tooley
Institute on Religion and Democracy 202-986-1440
November 19,1998

During the Cold War, mainline church leaders in the United States were largely silent about the plight of persecuted religious believers behind the Iron Curtain. Only when the Soviet empire fell did some begin to admit the folly of their silence.

But evidently they learned little. Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young led a National Council of Churches (NCC) delegation to China in October. And despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Young found "no evidence of excessive punitive treatment of Christians that we would use the word 'persecution' to describe."

The delegation either did not look very hard, or it has a extraordinarily narrow definition of "persecution." On the very week Young delivered his report to the NCC's General Assembly in Chicago on November 15, the Associated Press reported that Chinese police had arrested over 140 members of underground Protestant churches. Some of the church leaders were beaten before their imprisonment.

Their crime was worshipping outside churches sanctioned by the Chinese government. Chinese Protestants are required by law to worship in the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. The Roman Catholic Church is illegal in China, and all Catholics are supposed to worship in the communist-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

Young hailed the government-imposed Protestant arrangement in China as signifying a "post-denominationalism" that ensures Christian unity. The Roman Catholic situation in China is unfortunate, admitted Young, who noted he was unable to meet with an imprisoned Catholic bishop who refuses to renounce his allegiance to the Vatican. Young explained that the Pope's recognition of Taiwan "makes a great problem for the [Chinese] government."

He further explained that the mandatory registration of all churches in China was actually helpful, since it allows the government to begin returning appropriated church properties to congregations. Young did not mention that all properties of the Roman Catholic Church have been transferred to its government-controlled replacement.

"The Chinese government sees them [the churches] as a force for helping people to organize their lives," exuded Young. "But they want to know what's going on." According to the NCC report, regulation of religion is sometimes "onerous" but is "designed to assure order in a nation of 1.2 billion people which is still developing."

Young indirectly castigated human rights activists in the U.S. who complain of problems in China. "There's a tendency in this country to choose enemies," he lamented. "China has become the new Yellow Peril." Albert Pennybacker, who heads the NCC's lobby office in Washington, has faulted "ultra-rightist people in Congress" for promoting a "distorted" view of religious freedom in China.

The NCC report says the "frequent allegation of religious persecution in China may be simply uninformed. It may even be an intended and manipulative hoax." The church in China is now "grateful for the freedom to be the Christian community they now enjoy."

This claim would be disputed by seven underground church leaders who - at great risk to themselves - publicly released a "United Appeal of the Chinese House Church" in September. The Appeal calls for the release of Christians imprisoned for their faith and for the government to stop condemning Christians who refuse to join the official churches.

The Chinese houses churches may include as many as 80 million Chinese, compared to about 10 million in the official Protestant churches. The government estimates there are 4 million Catholics, but no one knows how many Catholics worship in secret. In their Appeal, the underground church leaders asked that all Chinese believers have equal rights to practice their faith.

According to Human Rights Watch/Asia, the Chinese government controls the official churches by directing selection of clergy, supervising financial affairs, vetoing building programs, and scrutinizing publications. Religious education for children is prohibited by law.

Most Americans would find these restrictions on religious freedom more than "onerous." And the threat of job loss, beatings, imprisonment, or even death for members of China's underground Catholic and Protestant churches would indeed qualify as "persecution."

Andrew Young takes over as the NCC's president next year. Twenty years ago, Jimmy Carter dismissed him from his UN position because of Young's penchant for imprudent public statements and political missteps. Don't count on the NCC to be as wise.

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