Religious freedom plea goes to Beijing

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 May, 2011, 12:00am


Leaders of 20 unofficial churches and Christian groups across the mainland have made an unprecedented appeal to lawmakers calling for their right to worship freely to be upheld.

It is the first time the burgeoning unregistered churches in the cities have joined together in issuing such a bold petition letter for religious freedom.

Many of the signatories are prominent figures in house church circles. The unusual move was a response to an ongoing crackdown on Beijing's Shouwang Church, which has been trying to hold outdoor services for the past five Sundays after it had been evicted from its former venue. Scores of Christians have been detained, and six leaders are under house arrest.

The petition, sent by courier on Wednesday to the National People's Congress, was signed by urban house church leaders in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu in Sichuan, Xian in Shaanxi and Wenzhou in Zhejiang. Church leaders said they feared it could spark a new round of action against them, and religious affairs experts agree.

'Because we have observed the recent state-church crisis unfolding in our capital and we can't see any sign of it being resolved, we're lodging this petition to you,' said the letter, which has been posted on the internet.

The petition, addressed to the Standing Committee of the NPC and its chairman, Wu Bangguo, called for an investigation into the Beijing municipal government's recent handling of Shouwang Church, which they said had created a crisis in the relationship between the central government and the unregistered churches.

The petition also called for a new law to safeguard religious freedom and a review of the current religious affairs rules, which require all religious bodies to register with the authorities - a de facto authorisation procedure that weeds out all groups outside Communist Party control.

Many of the mainland's urban house churches - which are technically illegal because they are not approved by the state - have grown into large congregations in relatively short periods, unnerving the authorities.

The government yesterday insisted there had been no threat to religious freedom in the country.

'The Chinese government safeguards the right of Chinese citizens to religious freedom and freedom of faith in accordance with the law,' Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said at a regular press conference.

Some of the house churches whose leaders signed the petition were themselves targets of crackdowns in the past two years. Wanbang Church in Shanghai and Qiuyuzhifu Church in Chengdu were both evicted from rented premises in 2009.

Wang Yi, leader of the Qiuyuzhifu - or Autumn Rain - church, said unofficial churches were concerned because the government had been resorting to unlawful means - such as detentions and house arrests - to suppress religious activities.

'We want to express our concern through legal channels,' Wang said. 'This may lead to harsher suppression, but I believe everything is in God's hands.' Another pastor who signed the petition said he knew there were risks involved in joining the plea, but believed it was a positive move to urge the government to resolve issues through legal means.

The number of Christians on the mainland has grown from about two million 30 years ago to between 23 million (an official figure released last year) and 130 million.

An official at the State Administration for Religious Affairs refused to comment over the phone.