The pastors of 17 large “underground” churches throughout China have taken a risky step in petitioning the People’s National Congress to give China freedom of religion.
Todd Nettleton of the Canada-based support group Voice of the Martyrs says, “What the petition says is, ‘Chinese Government, please follow the law.’ They’re not asking for new freedoms and rights. They’re asking that the rights that are promised them in the Chinese constitution actually be carried out and become reality.”
The petition was sparked by the government’s crackdown on the “underground,” 1,000-member Shouwang church in Beijing.
While religious freedom is outlined in China’s constitution, Nettleton says that’s not reality.
“The reality on the ground is that if you don’t come under the authority of the Chinese government — particularly the state administration for religious affairs, you are subject to persecution. You’re subject to being arrested. You’re subject to having your church closed down.”
Chinese Protestant churches must be part of the Three-Self Patriotic Church in order to be legal. Catholics must belong to the Patriotic Catholic Association — and cut all ties to the Vatican or any other Catholics worldwide. The Chinese government appoints the leadership in both groups and dictates what can be said in sermons. Children under 18 are not permitted to attend services.
As many as 150 million Chinese refuse to participate in the state-run churches, instead belonging to “underground” or “house” churches — both Protestant and Catholic. Their leaders are routinely arrested. Many have spent years in prison.
According to Nettleton, the petition is a bit unprecedented because of the large number of signatories. He says it’s a risky move since it could land all 17 pastor in jail as enemies of the state — accused of leading insurrection and dissent against the Chinese Communist Party, which runs the nation.
“Anybody who stands up publicly in China to call for more religious freedom is taking a risk that the Chinese government could crack down on them,” says Nettleton. “The Chinese government is obviously not going to look very favorably upon this petition or the people who signed it.”
Nettleton says the outcome won’t affect the future of the church. “Regardless of what happens with this petition, regardless of whether they get more freedom or less freedom, they will continue to serve the Lord and the Chinese church will continue to grow.”