This column is for the stranger who asked me two questions on West 47th Street in New York City, and for anybody else who wants to know.
First, some news. A mission of inquiry to China headed by a leading expert on persecution of Christians reported the following Monday:
Beijing’s campaign against the Christian underground is increasing. Persecution is generally worse than at any time since the dreadful early 1980s.
The government has targeted leaders of the clandestine “house churches” of Catholics and Protestants brave enough to insist on freedom of religion and of worship. Sentences of years at hard labor are commonplace; some leaders have not been heard from since their arrest months ago.
Now, the question from the stranger, who wore the hat and frock coat of many Orthodox Jews and stopped me in the street.
“Why are you writing so much about Christians?” he asked.
“Well, in various countries they are being persecuted, so I …”
He held up a hand. “I know why. You think if you write about that it will be good for the Jews, right?”
“Yes, but that’s not …”
“All right, enough, so keep writing,” he said pleasantly, and walked off.
Of course it will be good for Jews if persecution of Christians or Buddhists or people of any faith is known and fought. And yes, I hope if awareness of persecution of Christians spreads, it will create at last a national human rights movement in America against religious and political persecution, both.
Maybe then business executives will voluntarily stop enriching the persecuting government and so … that’s fantasy. China’s religious persecution is not news to them; they could have acted years ago.
Most of all, persecution of Christians must be written about with consistency because it is taking place with consistency - more, not less.
And because of this: Although more Americans are aware and demanding action, they are not getting it from Washington. Western democracies are all pious believers - in increasing trade, not in increasing religious freedom.
And this: If public anger against China’s persecution continues to grow, Congress might push President Clinton into some economic reprisal. Washington bears a direct responsibility. It uses the U.S. economy to bolster the persecuting government, its army, police and Communist Party, by investments, imports and floating of Chinese bonds.
So back to the report. The carefully small mission was headed by Dr. Paul Marshall, author of “Their Blood Cries Out,” an important book on persecution of Christians (Word Publishing, 800-933-9673) and sponsored by the Puebla Program on Religious Freedom, of Freedom House.
While some provinces are particularly repressive, the mission found that persecution has been stepped up in all areas from which it could get reports, about half of China. The pattern is not local but national.
Despite or because of the years of repression, China’s Catholic and Protestant churches are showing “explosive growth.” The official “patriotic churches” where Christians can go without fear of arrest naturally have had the largest growth.
The underground churches reject the government’s control - registration, licensing of clergymen and what they can preach, authority over appointments, including of bishops.
Evangelical clergymen say that about 40 percent of prisoners in the hard-labor camps of Henan Province were sentenced for belonging to the Christian underground.
But the underground church also increases dramatically. The report (copies from indispensable little Puebla: 202-296-5101) adds: “Underground leaders say the commitment required in China to practice one’s faith leads to a strong, disciplined and growing church.”
Footnotes for the stranger on 47th Street:
1. President Clinton abandoned his promise to link trade to human rights in 1994. He said that in return the Chinese would ease oppression. Later that year, the new wave of Christian persecution began. The screws were further tightened in mid-1996, and since, consistently.
2. The report says that in the past year police have beaten and tortured underground Christians with electric cattle prods and drills, sometimes in front of relatives forced to watch.