A Christian religious freedom group gave approval for the U.S. State Department’s removal of China from its human rights blacklist despite reports of the government’s increased crackdown on house churches ahead of the Olympic Games.
Open Doors International, which defends the right of house churches to freely worship, explained that although it condemns government persecution of “unofficial” churches, it also recognizes that religious freedom has significantly improved in China in recent years.
“China has had a lot of improvements in the last five to 10 years,” explained Johnny Li, minister at large at Open Doors International, Thursday to The Christian Post. “Religious freedom in China compared to five, 10 years ago is in much better shape now.”
But he was quick to note that China was not perfect and that it still has a lot of room for improvement.
“China can do much better,” said Li, who was born in Hong Kong and emigrated to the United States in 1996.
The U.S. State Department on Tuesday released its annual report on human rights which dropped China from its list of the world’s worst human rights violators.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice defended removing China on Wednesday by pointing to renewed dialogue with Beijing on human rights issues. She also explained that the top 10 list highlights countries that are extremely closed off to the world, like Burma (Myanmar) and North Korea, and it is not meant to be understood that those not on the list have good human rights records, according to Agence France-Presse.
"[I]t is by no means suggesting that there is not significant emphasis on human rights problems in China," Rice said, according to AFP. "If you read the report on China, it is quite harsh, and properly so, about human rights problems in China."
The report emphasized that China’s “overall human rights record remained poor” in 2007, as it specifically mentioned restrictions on religious freedom.
Open Doors’ Li said some of his friends are currently detained in Chinese prisons because of their faith. He also noted that he has received many phone calls in recent weeks from friends who are on the run and in “dangerous circumstances” because of their involvement in the house church movement.
But he still supported the removal of China from the U.S. human rights abuser list. He compared the situation to a parent disciplining a child. When the child is “naughty” then the parent disciplines him, but when the child “gets better” then the parent should reward the child.
“We give them (children) candy but this does not mean that the children are perfect,” Li said. “The children still have a long way to go, a lot of things they need to learn.”
Li believes that while the Chinese government needs to be “pressed” to change, it should also be “encouraged” to improve.
Speaking from the perspective of a Chinese-American, Li pointed out that Americans and Westerners have an easier time understanding religious freedom than the Chinese government.
Americans understand that the U.S. government cannot put all Christians under one denomination. Christians cannot all fit under the Baptist denomination or under the Methodist denomination because they practice their faith differently.
“The [Chinese] government couldn’t understand why Christians would not want to work under its umbrella,” Li said. “I give you the freedom and established this organization so you can register under my control and I can oversee you,” the religious freedom advocate said, explaining the way the Chinese government thinks. “Why don’t you join with us?”
In China, there are five government-sanctioned religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. A government-affiliated association monitors and supervises the activities of each of these faiths.
Protestant churches are required to register and operate under the government’s umbrella organization, the China Christian Council. But many protestant Christians refuse to work with the CCC, arguing that God is the head the church and not the government.
These “house” or “underground” churches gather in private homes and are often subjected to police raids and arrest, especially in rural areas.
Open Doors and many human rights groups have reported increased incidents of Christian persecution in China last year. China Aid Association in its annual update reported persecution worsened in 2007 compared to 2006.
Several Christian human rights groups recently accused the Chinese government of conducting a quieter persecution strategy aimed at house church leaders and avoiding massive arrests so as to avoid drawing international attention on its religious freedom violation ahead of the Olympic Games.
Open Doors’ 2008 World Watch List ranks China as the tenth worst persecutor of Christians in the world.