The case for exercising rights on religion
Behind the dispute between Beijing and the Vatican over who wields authority over China's Catholics, people of various faiths have taken advantage of a narrow degree of tolerance for religious practices, even if they have had to keep a low profile or remain underground. So long as they are not perceived to be a threat to state authority, some Tsaoist, Buddhist, Islamic and Christian groups have been able to follow their beliefs without being harassed as violently as in earlier periods. In a rude reverse to this limited progress, Beijing police last Sunday raided an outdoor Christian service in which more than 160 were taken away, prompting fears that a new round of persecution of underground churches is under way.
The congregation of Shouwang Protestant Church cannot be blamed for thinking so. They have nowhere to worship after officials pressured the landlord of a film studio to stop renting his premises to them following the previous Sunday service - the 20th time in 18 years they had been forced to move on. In 2009, the authorities stopped the owner of a commercial building from completing the 27 million yuan (HK$32 million) sale of a 1,500 square metre space to the church after it had paid the price in full.
The pastor and church members - mainly middle-class, university educated professionals - insist the outdoor service was not a show of defiance, but only an attempt to follow the Bible's injunction to worship every Sunday. The treatment of this congregation, one of the largest house churches on the mainland, now serves as an unmistakable warning to religious groups not to over-reach official tolerance. It is extremely regrettable if the communist authorities, so firmly in control and so confident in their stewardship of a rising great world power, still feel it necessary to persecute believers. Fears of a new round of persecution are partly fed by the sweeping crackdown on political dissent in the wake of the jasmine uprisings in the Middle East. But the Communist Party's grip on power is surely firm enough now to allow people to exercise the right to practise their religion as enshrined in the constitution.