Presentation on Religious Liberty in China, April 21, 1994

Year Published
  • 2013
  • English

Most Favored Nation Status
Washington, D.C.
Fr. Drew Christiansen, SJ
April 21, 1994

Religious Liberty in China: An American Catholic View


My name is Drew Christiansen. I am the director of the Office of International Justice and Peace of the United States Catholic Conference, the social policy arm of the Roman Catholic bishops of the United States. I come to you this afternoon to make a plea that is high on the list of human rights, along with prisoners' rights, freedom for political dissidents and the rights of labor leaders, which the US government, international agencies and non-governmental organizations will press on the government of the People's Republic of China, will be religious liberty. 

From the church-sponsored human rights commissions in Latin America in the 70s to the defense of worker rights in Eastern Europe in the 80s, the Catholic Church has made the defense of human rights the cornerstone of its service to the world community. In that spirit, only last week Bishop Daniel P. Reilly, chairman of the bishops' Committee on International Policy, joined other religious leaders in appealing to President Clinton to support the Dalai Lama's proposal for protection of the unique religious and cultural heritage of Tibet. 

Historically, religious liberty and the rights of conscience played a vital role in the emergence of human rights and democracy in the West. They were central to the church's policy in Latin America in the 1970s, and were a key factor in the fall of totalitarianism in Eastern Europe in the 1980s. For the past three years, the United States Catholic Conference, with help of many others, has made religious liberty in China a priority for the 1990s. 

me just to suggest the dimensions of the problem. Though statistics are hard to come by, it is estimated that 200 million Chinese have some connection with organized religion. Of that number about half or 100 million are Buddhists. Of the 8 to 12 million Catholics, 4 million belong to churches connected with the government-sponsored Catholic Patriotic Association. Another 4 to 8 million belong to the underground church in communion with Rome. Similarly, about 5 million Protestants belong to the "post-denominational" official church and upwards of 15 million belong to the burgeoning "house church" movement which has met with especially harsh persecution in recent years. 

For the period leading up to the millennial Olympic Games decision last fall, there appeared to be a gradual relaxation of pressure on religious groups, with the release of many church leaders from prison. In addition, there seemed to be progress towards normalization of ties between China and the Holy See. Since that time, however, there has been an upsurge of religious persecution and anti-religious legislation and talks on normalization are once again at an impasse. 

Commenting on religious liberty in the Far East during his annual address to the diplomatic corps last January. Pope John Paul II noted with reference to China that believers "are denied the right to organize themselves in conformity with the law of the Church or to maintain normal contacts with the Holy See. The same is true," he added, "for those experiencing the difficult condition of living in secrecy." These conditions, of course, have worsened with recent legislation restricting the activities of religious groups and forbidding their support by co-religionists in other countries.

In similar fashion, the representative of the Holy See to the UN Human Rights Commission on the 17th of February, declared that "There still exists too many situations where every manifestation of belief and any participation in certain religious communities is forbidden. Believers cannot come together to celebrate the liturgy, nor to freely disseminate their writings, and they are sometimes forced into the harsh condition of clandestine existence, and even persecution and imprisonment." 

Why this hostility to religion? With the waning of Marxism, the reasons seem less and less ideological. Some suggest that antagonism to religion on the part of the government is the result of the fear of foreign influence: fear of American evangelicals in the case of the house churches, fear of the Dalai Lama's international standing in the case of Tibet, fear of the radicalizing power of Islam in the case of Muslims, and in the case of the underground Catholic church, fear of Rome. 

The exiled Jesuit bishop of Canton, Dominic Tang, offers another explanation. "The party's claim extends far beyond the natural demand of governments for loyalty and patriotism," he has said. "In short, the government claims authority over each Chinese soul. And it reserves its special venom towards those whose rejection of this claim has any institution behind it." 

You probably want to know where the Conference stands on Most-Favored-Nation status for China. The USCC has repeatedly supported conditioning MFN on human rights performance and it continues to do so. In February, the Committee on International Policy decided to go ahead with our campaign for religious liberty in China. 

For a time, the Committee's decision on the Most-Favored-Nation issue depended on news about the direction of international contacts with the church in China. That news, as I indicated, has not been encouraging. Now, a final decision awaits a clarification of the public debate as to what options will be seriously considered by US authorities, whether that be revocation of MFN, temporary suspension, progressive tariffs or targeted sanctions. 

We are concerned, like many here, that the Administration sometimes seems to take trade more seriously than any moral principle. None the less, we do not believe that any one policy exhausts the range of morally responsible positions on human rights in China, nor does the moral integrity of US policy ride on any single policy formulation. What matters is that the United States find the means not only to assert its moral convictions, but even more that it will commit itself to a strategy which will effectively promote basic rights and religious liberty for the people of China. 

Thank you for your kindness in listening to me.