A Chinese religious freedom monitoring group said this week that up to 150 Chinese pastors are now believed to be in police custody, five days after officials raided a Bible study and detained 270 people. These arrests, in eastern Shandong province, have come as part of a growing campaign by human rights groups for international focus on China leading up to next year’s Olympic Games in Beijing. As is almost always the case these pastors arrested are a part of the "house church" movement, congregations that do not belong to state-sanctioned "patriotic" churches. This new case stands out because the number of people is so large. The practice is common outside the major cities of China but goes without outside notice in most cases.
What startles me is how many American tourists I have known who go to China and come back believing that the government does not target certain Christians for persecution. The simple fact is Chinese authorities do not recognize religious freedom at all, except in a limited way among those who are affiliated with the Three Self-Patriotic Movement (TSP). The TSP is China’s way of recognizing some Catholic and Protestants groups who submit to state-control in several specific ways. This issue of government sanction and freedom of conscience is as old as the history of the Christian Church itself. And real and serious Christians have always been on both sides of this debate: "How far do we go in submitting to governmental control and influence in the local church?"
The ruling Communist Party in China is atheistic but official documents online say the government upholds religious freedom and that religious activities are thus "free from interference." This is a half-truth at best.
What seems apparent is that China wants to put the best face it can on their country for the Olympic games next summer. I urge Christians to pray and work in ways that pressure China’s government to loosen these abusive practices. Nations like China do desire acceptance in the West thus this is a case where both economic and political pressure can be effective for the good of many suffering people. Pray for the persecuted Church in China and elsewhere. "Remember those in bonds."