Persecution Watchdogs Counter Palau's Remarks on Religious Freedom in China

Christian persecution groups responded with strong objections to controversial statements made recently by evangelist Luis Palau, who claimed that there was greater religious freedom in China and urged churches to register with the government.

“[Palau’s] position discounts the suffering of our brothers and sisters in China, and assumes the good will of a government that hasn't earned that assumption,” wrote Todd Nettleton, director of news service for the Voice of the Martyrs (VOM), on the VOM Persecution Blog.

During his fifth trip to China, the highly respected evangelist said at a press conference in Beijing on Nov. 19 that he wanted to “make every effort to let people know that there is more freedom in China than people have anticipated,” and that he would “personally” encourage unregistered churches to register and “receive greater freedom and blessings from the government.”

“I feel that registering is a positive thing for the followers of Jesus,” Palau stated. “Believers should live in the open, especially when the Chinese government offers it. Jesus said that we are the light of the world, and that we should not be kept hidden or in the dark. Therefore, believers should share their faith openly.”

“If I were Chinese, I would definitely register. Not registering only lends to misinterpretations and misunderstandings,” he added.

Palau’s statements concerning persecution in China came as a shock and a disappointment to much of the Christian community and drew the protests of persecution watchdogs internationally.

“Luis Palau echoes common misinformed preconceptions about registration in China when he says that the government’s urging of house churches to register is similar to the way churches must register in the U.S. and in his native country, Argentina and hence, he urges unregistered congregations to register,” wrote Glenn Penner, Communication Director for the Voice of the Martyrs (VOM) in Canada, in a statement to The Christian Post.

Penner noted that rather than receiving “greater freedom and blessings” from the government, Chinese churches actually lose rights when they register with the government including: the absolute right to choose who will lead services; the right to choose location and time of services; the autonomy to appoint pastors and preach about the second coming of Christ; the ability to allow children under 18 to attend Church meetings; the right to perform evangelistic works outside of designated places of worship; the freedom by clergies to choose who and where to study; and the headship of the church.

Registered churches in China must submit to the authority of the Communist Party-controlled government, yielding power to the government to approve basic Church decisions.

“Christians are under a biblical mandate to disobey laws that call for them to disobey scriptural principles or to give to Caesar that which belongs to God,” Penner exclaimed.

“The whole idea of mandatory registration is a violation of religious liberty and basic human rights. Governments are not given the mandate to grant religious freedom; this is a God-given right. Governments can only acknowledge this right.”

In addition, Nettleton noted that “the Communist Party, which controls these registered churches, has as one of its bedrock principles the idea that there is no God. With that in mind, it is easy to understand why an estimated 80 percent of China's Christians refuse to come under government control.”

“They know that our first loyalty, as Christians, is to Jesus Christ, not to government leaders,” Nettleton continued. “Making a comparison between registering for tax-exempt status in the U.S. and Chinese state restrictions on religion is like comparing a gentle spring rain with Hurricane Katrina.”

Both Penner and Nettleton gave mention of well-known Chinese pastors that have been arrested, beaten, or jailed for their faith as evidence that religious freedom in China is not as Palau claims.

“I wonder how Mr. Palau would explain his comment to Christians like Li Ying, who is serving a 15-year prison sentence for publishing a Christian magazine. Or to Cai Zhuohua, sentenced this month to serve three years in a labor camp for printing Bibles and other Christian literature (the government only allows one printer to print Bibles, and those are not available except to the registered churches),” Penner questioned.

“Or to Gong Shengliang, serving a life sentence for his Christian work with the South China Church. Or to Christian businessman Tong Qimiao, who suffered severe injuries at the hands of police when he was arrested and then denied hospital treatment and whose business was forced to close when he demanded that those responsible for his abuse to be punished.”

Nettleton, also made mention of the family of Jiang Zongxiu, who was beaten to death in police custody in June, 2004 after being arrested for giving out Bibles and Christian literature in the marketplace.

“I suspect all of them would be surprised to hear that there is now more freedom in China,” Nettleton wrote.

“How does Mr. Palau respond to documents smuggled out of China this year that provide concrete evidence that the persecution policies are being directed from the Central Government in Beijing; not only from local or provincial authorities,” Penner continued. “This directly contradicts Mr. Palau's assertion that ‘It could just be local authorities acting on their own accord.’”

Though Nettleton expressed strong disapproval of Palau’s statements, the VOM spokesman also expressed appreciation for the work he’s done through the years to spread the gospel.

As one of the most respected evangelists in the Spanish-speaking world today Palau has taken the message of hope to an estimated 20 million people in 70 nations through the ministry that bears his name. Palau is well known for the evangelistic festivals he has held over the years. Recent festivals included Washington, D.C.; Madrid, Spain; and Mendoza, Argentina.

“Thank you, Mr. Palau, for your years of faithful service to the King,” Nettleton concluded. “Please honor our suffering brothers and sisters in China by retracting your call for all Christians in China to register with the Communist government. Coming under control of an atheistic government is not the answer to Christian persecution in China.”

[Editor's Note: Anthony Chiu contributed reporting from Beijing for this article, and Kenneth Chan from San Francisco.]