China has started a campaign to crack down on “illegal social organizations,” including Christian groups who do not register with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), at the same time that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that he is reversing the existing U.S. diplomatic policy that emphasizes religious liberty as a foundational human right.
Just days after reports broke of Chinese authorities conducting raids on Christians and holding and torturing them in “transformation” facilities, China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA) announced that it will begin cracking down on social organizations or foundations that are not registered with the government or who continue their activities despite having had their registration revoked.
International Christian Concern wrote,
“The five Illegal social organizations include those committing fraud and those engaged in economic, cultural or charity activities in the name of implementing national strategies; organizations using the words “China,” “Zhonghua,” or “National” in their names pretending to be subsidiaries of state organs; those who join forces with legal organizations to deceive [the government]; organizing competitions in the name of celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP); planning activities that pretend to promote health, sinology, or mysticism, and those that hold gatherings in the name of religion.”
The Department of Civil Affairs in Sichuan province published a list of 84 “illegal social organizations.” Among those on the list are several Buddhist and Christian groups, including the heavily persecuted Early Rain Covenant Church, which has been shut down since 2018 but continues to meet in secret.
Father Francis Liu from the Chinese Christian Fellowship of Righteousness said, “In the eyes of the Chinese government, any religious group that refuses to submit to the CCP, or even charity groups, are seen as ‘illegal organizations,’ for the government is fearful that these civil groups can become a force that overthrows them.”
There are currently approximately 100 million Christians in China and that number is expected to potentially reach 300 million by 2030.
“Much of the growth has come since 2010, and some projections suggest that by 2030 China could surpass America to have the largest population of Christians in the world,” scholar and Bard College professor Walter Russell Mead wrote.
“This is one of the few competitions with the U.S. that Beijing does not want to win,” he continued. “Churches are increasingly targets of the Chinese Communist Party’s repression of free speech.”
Churches that do register with the Chinese government are subject to restrictions on what they teach and are required to use the government’s revised version of the Bible.
One example of such a change to the Gospel is the account of Jesus refusing to stone the adulterous woman. Mead wrote, “In the new, improved version, when the accusers have left, Jesus stones the woman himself, saying, ‘I too am a sinner. But if the law could only be executed by men without blemish, the law would be dead.’”
China is growing bolder in its oppression of Christians and other religious groups. The CCP treats religion as a threat to its power, consistently portraying Christianity as a “Western” influence. As the Church grows, so too do China’s restrictions and methods of persecution.
All of this is happening even as the Biden Administration is reversing the Trump administration’s focus on religious liberty and instead putting its emphasis on other rights such as abortion and LGBTQ rights. In early April, Secretary of State Antony Blinken presented the State Department’s 45th human rights report in which he repudiated “the unbalanced views” that religious liberty should be at the top of a hierarchy of human rights touted and defended by the United States.
“There is no hierarchy that makes some rights more important than others,” Blinken said, noting that he “decisively” rejected the conclusions of the Commission on Unalienable Rights, which was set up under the Trump administration and received interfaith praise around the globe for its strong defense of religious liberty.
Is that true? Is religious liberty just one more right? Hardly. At the core of all human liberties rests religious freedom. The founders certainly saw it that way, believing that religious freedom was necessary for a moral society and that it serves as the foundational liberty of all inherent human rights. George Washington and James Madison were two of the strongest proponents for the free exercise of religion and its benefits in enabling the goals of human dignity, freedom, and prosperity.
Washington wrote, “The liberty enjoyed by the people of these States of worshipping Almighty God, agreable to their consciences, is not only among the choicest of their blessings, but also of their rights.”
Madison in his “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments” wrote of religious liberty:
“This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men: It is unalienable also, because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.”
Religious liberty is the first of all liberties, not just for people of faith but all people. Even atheists have a religious view and a right to conscience and this directs and guides all other aspects of life. If man is not free to make the most important and most intimate decisions regarding what he or she believes about his own life and purpose and to exercise that right, all other rights are suspect.
A person’s religious view guides their moral and political views, as well as the daily decisions they make. If a government can restrict the way a person serves God, there is nothing they cannot restrict.
Thomas Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute who also served for 21 years as a diplomat with the Foreign Service, once stated that religious freedom is “necessary to the health and the stability of democracy” and as such needs to be at the very heart of U.S. foreign policy. Religious freedom isn’t just a philosophical tenet to be contemplated but from its practice flow a host of highly pragmatic and seemingly unrelated benefits to society, such as higher literacy rates, lower infant mortality, and economic development.
In fact, research done by a variety of social scientists at the Pew Research Center, Baylor University, and other institutions bear this out. “What the data seem to be showing is that there’s something called a ‘bundled commodity’ of fundamental freedoms, and religious freedom is right at the center of those,” Farr explained. “If you pull it out, it’s like a linchpin; the thing collapses.”
Jennifer Marshall, a senior visiting fellow in the Institute of Family, Community and Opportunity at The Heritage Foundation, once wrote, “Religious freedom is the birthright of all people, but too few governments around the world acknowledge it and far too many people have never enjoyed it.”
China is one of the chief offenders restricting religious freedom, and now our own government sees religious freedom as no more important than any other right — though its priorities and actions would indicate that it actually considers religious liberty to be a lesser right.
If the United States government will no longer defend the central importance of religious freedom, how can it effectively respond to regimes in China and around the world who see nothing wrong with criminalizing and abusing religious groups?