Beijing eases up on religion, study finds Worshipers no longer jailed, hit as much

October 21, 1997|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- China continues to violate its citizens' rights to worship freely, but the worst forms of persecution, such as long prison sentences and beatings, appear to be have decreased in recent years, an international monitoring organization said yesterday.

"In 1997, we found isolated cases but no evidence of widespread or systematic brutality," said Human Rights Watch/Asia. The group's 39-page report was issued just days before Chinese President Jiang Zemin is to fly to the United States, where he faces much criticism for his country's human rights record.

The Human Rights Watch report emphasized that while brutal repression may have diminished, the Chinese government has tightened its grip on religious groups by more strictly enforcing various laws, including those requiring them to register with the state. In registering, organizations agree to cede some control over the selection of clergy and religious materials as well as financial management.

"Increasingly the government is citing violations of Chinese law as its pretext for dismantling churches, monasteries, mosques, temples or congregations that refuse to adapt, especially targeting those individuals and organizations that attempt to operate outside official bureaucratic control," the New York-based rights organization said.

Next week's visit to the United States by Jiang will be the first time a Chinese head of state has visited America in a dozen years. Christian activists critical of China's policies are expected to stage demonstrations during the eight-day visit, which will include stops in Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Los Angeles.

The Chinese government maintains that it protects freedom of religious belief. When it shuts down a congregation that refuses to register, the government argues that it is merely enforcing the law. Punishment can include fines, seizure of property and, occasionally, short-term detention, according to the report.

The government also cracks down on what it describes as cults which, it claims, preach heresy and incite people to overthrow the Communist Party.

In a report Thursday, the government defended its treatment of unauthorized religions as being in the "public good."

"Some pernicious organizations have sprung up in certain areas of China which engage in illegal and even criminal activities under the signboard of religion," it said. "[They] distort religious doctrines, create heresies, deceive the masses, refuse to obey the state's laws and decrees and incite people to overthrow the government."

"No country that practices the rule of law in the world today would tolerate illegal and criminal activities being carried out under the banner of religion," the government said in a white paper released last week.

Chinese officials estimate that there are over 100 million religious followers in China, a figure they have used since the 1950s. Whatever the actual number, Human Rights Watch said religion appears to be growing dramatically in this officially atheistic country.

The government, though, continues to tighten control over religious groups -- which include Buddhists, Christians, Taoists and Muslims -- for fear that they could create instability in this nation of 1.2 billion people. Chinese officials say, for instance, that radical Islamic organizations abroad provide support to a separatist movement in China's far western Xinjiang Province.

Government officials keep a hand in the internal affairs of religious groups by conducting annual inspections of sites and monitoring lists of foreign visitors. Human Rights Watch said the government also prohibits the preaching of the second coming of Christ, judgment day and the biblical account of creation -- a charge Chinese officials deny.

The rights group noted, though, that refusal to register churches no longer means automatic arrest.

Although officials have confiscated Bibles and detained him, 83-year-old preacher Allen Yuan refuses to register and still holds religious gatherings in his tiny house in Beijing.

Human Rights Watch attributed the leniency to the government's desire to portray its policies as benign.

The organization said the increased emphasis on enforcing legal restrictions is driven by pragmatism.

"The government seems to have concluded," the report said, "that regulations work and that their enforcement is a feasible alternative to harsher methods of repression."

Still, there are exceptions.

Earlier this month, officials in nearby Hebei Province arrested Roman Catholic Bishop Su Zhimin, a leader in the underground Catholic Church, according to the Cardinal Kung Foundation, a Chinese religious rights group based in Stamford, Conn.

Officials at the Hebei security bureau would not confirm that Su had been arrested or provide any details.

There are an estimated 4 million Catholics in China, worshiping in 4,600 churches under 4,000 clergy. China recognizes only its officially sanctioned Chinese Catholic Church and rejects Roman Catholics who claim allegiance to the Vatican. Like the bishop, they worship in underground churches.

Pub Date: 10/21/97

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