So far at the Rio Olympics, Team China is having a pretty good run, lagging behind only the United States in the overall medal count and tied with the U.S. for first place in golds. A story out of the Czech Republic on Monday, however, confirms that China isn’t performing nearly as well in terms of its record on religious freedom.
According to reports in both the Czech and the Chinese media, 60 Chinese migrants claiming to be Christians from 10 different denominations, all fearing persecution back home, have applied for political asylum. It’s the largest such request by a group of Chinese refugees in the history of the Czech Republic.
One is obliged to say “claiming” to be Christian because Chinese press reports tried to cast doubt on whether the asylum-seekers really are believers, suggesting they’re simply illegal immigrants using religion as a pretext. Officials from the Chinese embassy in Prague are said to be looking into the situation.
The 60 migrants are being held at two different Czech detention centers, and, according to a report by Radio Prague, they’re under unusually heavy protection, saying they fear recrimination against family members who remain in China.
Even if it turns out that these 60 folks aren’t genuinely Christian, it’s still revealing that they chose Christianity as their rationale for requesting asylum. It suggests that when many Chinese think “persecution” these days, they think of the country’s rapidly growing Christian minority.
For the most part, the problem for Christians in China isn’t terrorist violence, and it’s not really classic religious hatred. Instead, it’s the dynamics of an authoritarian regime, elements of which view Christians with suspicion – because of their supposed ties to the West, because of their resistance to state control, and out of concern over whether their root loyalty is to their country or their creed.
As a result, many Chinese Christians live in a constant condition of fear about surveillance, harassment, intimidation, and, in extreme cases, arrest and torture.
As of this writing, there’s at least one Catholic bishop in China still languishing in a state prison. The number was two, until 94-year-old Bishop Cosmas Shi Enxiang died behind bars in February 2015 after spending half his life in prisons or forced labor camps.
On July 30, 93-year-old Bishop Vincenzo Huang Shoucheng of Xiapu also died. He wasn’t in prison at the time, but over the course of his life he spent 35 years either in jail, forced labor or house arrest. A Vatican statement praised his “heroic witness of faith, unconditional fidelity to the Successor of Peter, and deep communion with the universal Church.”
Yet another Chinese prelate, Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin, remains under a sort of house arrest, and is subject to monitoring by security services when performing his episcopal duties.
They’re joined by several Catholic priests and religious, as well as scores of Protestant pastors and lay believers from all denominations, who are either in detention or who’ve been released only on the condition that they play ball.
To some extent, Christians in China are victims of their own success. They’ve grown so rapidly that state officials often worry they’re spinning out of control.
At the time of the Communist takeover in 1949, there were roughly 900,000 Protestants in the country. Today, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity estimates there are 111 million Christians in China, roughly 90 percent Protestant and most Pentecostal. That would make China the third-largest Christian country on earth, following only the United States and Brazil.
According to the Center, there are 10,000 conversions every day.
Chinese bureaucrats aren’t dumb, and they’ve learned over the years that whenever possible, it’s smart to avoid creating new martyrs. The primary way they attempt to control this sprawling Christian presence is by buying off its leadership.
“They offer entertainment, travel, even access to a political career,” said Italian Father Gianni Criveller, a leading Catholic expert on China. “Those who go along are rewarded with substantial payoffs.”
When the carrot doesn’t work, however, the state is more than willing to use the stick.
In 2011, dissent Chinese journalist and poet Liao Yiwu, who’s not a Christian but who admires the fierce commitment to freedom of expression displayed by many Chinese Christians, published God is Red, documenting the church’s struggles.
Among other things, Yiwu tells the story of a 100-year-old nun who endured decades of beatings, starvation and forced labor, but who still wasn’t backing down from her demand that the government return lands seized from the local Catholic church.
To be sure, not everyone in the Chinese government has it in for the Christian minority. Some China-watchers believe there are elements in the regime actually encouraging the growth of Christianity, especially its Protestant form, on the theory that with it comes a Western-style work ethic that’s good for business.
Yet the fact of the matter remains that China is a danger zone for Christians, as the 60 migrants currently in the Czech Republic illustrate.
Czech reaction also illustrates another hard truth, which is that it’s tough to pressure China to clean up its act given its enormous economic influence.
Czech President Miloš Zeman has been pursuing a “reset” of relations with Beijing, focusing less on political matters and more on business deals. He’s been to China twice in the last two years and Chinese investment is growing fast, with recent purchases of a storied Czech brewery and the country’s second-most successful soccer club the most celebrated examples.
In that climate, local media in the Czech Republic have speculated that it will be tough for Zeman to grant the asylum request, no matter what the real story on these 60 people may be.
Figuring out the right response to such situations is admittedly difficult – in part, because there’s always the risk that too much external pressure or provocation could actually make things worse for Christians and other minorities on the ground in China.
The Czech case does, however, indisputably confirm one core truth: While the world understandably focuses on the Middle East and the genocide against Christians and other minorities by the Islamic state, radical Islam is hardly the only force fueling anti-Christian persecution.
Christians also face hardships in a staggering number of other regions and contexts, making today’s “war on Christians,” being fought for a variety of reasons and on a variety of fronts, truly global.