The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is urging China not to detain Christian members of unregistered "house churches" who plan to worship outdoors this Easter. But the agency doubts China's communist party will heed the word of caution until the administration can convince it to embrace human rights.
USCIRF Chair Leonard Leo chided government officials on Wednesday for their "ruthless intolerance" towards the unregistered Shouwang Church's public prayer services. He also urged Chinese officials to take a more peaceful tact with house church members on Easter Sunday.
"Beijing's action further alienates the fast-growing number of religious believers in China, particularly during Easter, the most sacred week in Christianity," said Leo in a statement.
In the weeks leading up to Holy Week, authorities from Beijing's Communist Party prevented the 1,000+ Shouwang congregation from occupying the premises it rented to hold services. The church responded by scheduling an outdoor worship service. The police then arrested over 100 members including Shouwang's senior pastor, Jin Tianming, last weekend.
Shouwang Church is still planning to hold outdoor prayers on Easter Sunday unless they are given permission to celebrate indoors at their usual building.
Leo desires that the government allows Christians to practice their faith uninterrupted. However, Scott Flipse, USCIRF deputy director of policy and research, does not believe the Communist Party will let an event they view to be a form of dissidence go unchallenged.
He said the government is skittish about any form of public discontent due to rumors of a political uprising dubbed the Jasmine Revolution.
At least 54 artists, lawyers, writers, activists and intellectuals have already been detained, The Irish Times reports. The most high-profile figure to be detained was the controversial artist Ai Weiwei, according to figures from the Chinese Human Rights Defenders group.
But in this specific instance, Flipse noted, the party feels threatened by the Protestant Church.
In some part of China, "There are more Protestants than party members," he explained. "Protestants have become a political challenge because their growth."
The Pew Research Center estimated in 2007 that 50 million to 70 million Christians practice in unregistered religious gatherings or house churches. Meanwhile, the number of Christians belonging to registered organizations totals less than half of that.
China allows freedom of religious belief and protects religious activities that are state-sanctioned. Religious groups in China are required to register with the government and operate under official religious bodies. For Protestant churches, that means operating under the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the China Christian Council (TSPM/CCC).
Unregistered churches, or "house churches," are not outlawed, but are not permitted to openly hold religious services unless they affiliate with a patriotic religious association
Especially daunting to the Beijing authorities, Flipse added, is that Christianity has drawn intellectuals, lawyers, professionals and youth to its membership. He told The Christian Post that Communist Party officials are likely fearful that these members are going to be "more loyal to their church than their party."
These thoughts are motivating party officials to challenges activities to which they previously turned a blind eye.
In a February 2011 speech, Wang Zu'on, head of China's State Administration for Religious Affairs, called on government officials to renew efforts to "guide" unregistered Protestants to worship in state-sanctioned churches and break up large unregistered churches such as Shouwang into small groups.
The only way to change China's treatment of the Church, Flipse said, is to show its leaders that it is in its interest as a nation to embrace human rights such as religious freedom and freedom of speech.
When asked if President Barack Obama's administration is doing its part to encourage China to embrace human rights, he commented, "I think that the administration has found their voice just recently."
In the past, Flipse said, "[the administration] admitted they sought in the beginning to downplay human rights to get long-term cooperation."
This is not the right path to ensuring China changes its human rights policy, he noted. "Our (USCIRF's) position is clear: You just can't [ignore human rights]." Instead, the United States and the world have to send a unified that message that freedoms of speech and religion are important, he stressed.
Flipse said he was encouraged by Obama's mention of human rights during China President Hu Jintao's January visit.
During a state arrival ceremony at the White House, Obama stated, "History shows that societies are more harmonious, nations are more successful, and the world is more just, when the rights and responsibilities of all nations and all people are upheld, including the universal rights of every human being."
Despite some progress, Flipse emphasized that now is the time to do more. China will be facing a change in leadership in 2012, he pointed out. "They're deciding what the policy (on churches) is going to be right now.”
Flipse offered his advice for future diplomatic discussions: "You're not going to force China. You have to show them that it's in their best interest [to adopt human rights policies] and why."