Persecution of house church Christians in Beijing increased 418 percent in 2008 - the year of the Summer Olympic Games - according to a report released this week by a U.S.-based religious freedom group.
The total number of reported people persecuted in Beijing was 539 from January to December 2008, up 418 percent from 104 people in 2007, China Aid Association reported. Overall in China, there were a total of 2,027 people persecuted because of their Christian faith, up 157 percent from 788 people in 2007.
"The significantly worse persecution of Christians in 2008 had a direct relationship with the Olympic Games," the report states. "This is not hard to understand, because whenever the government holds important social event, serious suppression is implemented to maintain the appearance of stability through spreading fear among people."
Persecution, as defined by the report, includes threats, inordinate fines, property confiscation, interrogation, arrest, and abuses.
China is an officially atheist country and its citizens are not allowed to legally worship unless they belong to one of the registered houses of worship that is supervised by government bodies.
But tens of millions of Christians - some estimates place the number as high as 100 million - refuse to worship in government-sanctioned churches. These "underground" or "house church" Christians worship secretly in homes at the risk of being arrested, fined, or imprisoned by China's Public Security Bureau (PSB) officials.
House church Christians argue that the government should not be the head of the church, and restricting where they can worship is infringing on their religious freedom.
But recently, the government-recognized church organizations, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) and China Christian Council (CCC), expressed that they are willing to support the country's house churches by providing them with Bibles.
In China, only registered churches are allowed to sell Bibles. The retail and distribution of Scripture is strictly controlled in China so that they are not imported or sold in general bookstores. As a result, it is difficult for many house church Christians to obtain a copy of the Bible.
Last fall, TSPM and CCC leaders met with Hong Kong church leaders and said they want to support house churches in mainland China and work together with them to build the Chinese Protestant Church.
In particular, the TSPM-CCC leaders said they hope to work together with house church leaders to resolve problems such as shortages of pastors in China and theological challenges facing the Chinese Church.
Although China is still far from being a respectable country in terms of religious freedom, it has made progress in the eyes of the U.S. government and U.S.-based Christian persecution watchdog group Open Doors.
The U.S. State Department removed China from its human rights blacklist last March, and Open Doors dropped China from its top 10 list of the worst Christian persecutors this past week. China ranks No. 12 in the 2009 Open Doors World Watch List, down from No. 10 in 2008.
However, in the China Aid report, China is shown to have serious religious freedom problems that may perhaps have been better masked by the government. Reports ahead of the Beijing Olympics had stated that the government was using more subtle methods to persecute Christians, such as the arrest of only important house church leaders instead of mass arrests of worshippers as it did in previous years.
There were 764 reported arrests in 2008, up 10.2 percent from 2007, according to the report. The number of people sentenced increased 119 percent, from 35 to 16 people. And the number of people abused increased 71.4 percent, from 35 to 60 people.
In the report, China Aid Association stressed that the information it received is expected to be only the tip of the iceberg and the number of cases of Christian persecution is likely much higher. But the information, it noted, covers the majority of provinces and municipalities in China and involves many types of persecution.
"It is sufficient to reflect the overall situation and the degree of persecution of house churches in the past year," the report states.
China Aid Association was founded in 2002 by Bob Fu, a Chinese Christian who fled China after being persecuted, including being imprisoned, for his faith. While living in China, Fu pastored a house church with 30 students and was a leader in the student democracy movement.
He established China Aid Association to draw international attention to China's human rights violations against house church Christians. Fu has frequently testified before many organizations, including the House International Relations Committee, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China and the UN Commission on Human Rights.
Fu, along with other Chinese activists, had met with former President George W. Bush at the White House to discuss religious freedom in China.