Fragile China

International | After three-week religious-freedom tour, Clinton's mission leaders say handle Beijing with care

Issue: "Clinton: Final straw?," March 28, 1998

Back from a three-week tour and dialogue with Chinese political and religious leaders about religious freedom, National Association of Evangelicals president Donald Argue informally reported some of his observations at the NAE annual meeting in Orlando early this month. He described the contrast he found between the officially sanctioned churches and unregistered house churches there. The former have "freedom within the parameters of 'normal' religious activity, as defined by the government," he said. Those churches "can worship and teach the faithful in places designated for such activities. They also can publish some religious writing, carry out works of compassion and social service."

But, he added, for the unregistered house churches, "which include most evangelicals, those same freedoms do not exist." They are "subject to pressure, harassment, even detention or imprisonment for their beliefs, although treatment by local officials varies widely from place to place."

Mr. Argue was one of three representatives President Clinton sent on the privately financed mission at the invitation of Chinese president Jiang Zemin. The others were Catholic Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Newark, N.J., and New York rabbi Arthur Schneier, head of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation. Each was accompanied by aides.

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Criticism of the visit came from both the theologically liberal National Council of Churches and from conservatives involved with human-rights issues. The NCC complained publicly that its people were not invited. NCC leaders are not fond of the campaign launched in early 1996 by the NAE and other groups that complained the U.S. government was not doing enough to stop persecution of Christians abroad. The NCC argues that although problems of religious freedom exist in China, they are not as severe as human-rights advocates paint them.

Some human-rights experts criticized the visit, warning that Chinese authorities would orchestrate what the delegation would see and hear. Midway through the visit, Nina Shea of the Center for Religious Freedom wrote that it "has been a bitter disappointment for those of us working for religious freedom in China and elsewhere." She charged the trip was being "manipulated by the Chinese government as part of its aggressive public relations campaign to conceal the religious persecution there" and noted the delegation's failure to visit religious prisoners.

Archbishop McCarrick, in a press briefing, said one of the mission's main objectives was "to begin a dialogue about religion and religious freedom on the highest levels" of the Chinese government. He said the group gave to the head of China's Religious Affairs Bureau a list of 30 Catholics, Protestants, and Buddhists about whom members were concerned because of imprisonment or other circumstances. He also said some people in the delegation met with leaders of unregistered churches and others sympathetic toward them.

Richard Cizik, one of two NAE aides who accompanied Mr. Argue, said the group had more than 50 "substantive" meetings with government and religious leaders in the six cities the delegation visited. In Beijing, Mr. Argue preached at a Sunday morning worship service at the city's largest officially sanctioned Protestant church. The tour included a first-ever visit to a Tibetan prison by a U.S. delegation.

At the NAE meeting, Mr. Argue said Chinese leaders, from President Jiang down, acknowledged they realize any Sino-U.S. talks must include discussion about religious freedom. But, he added, "we cannot let up on the issue because millions of our brothers and sisters still cannot worship freely in China. Without progress in resolving these difficult issues of religious freedom, there will not be the improvement in relations with China that we hope for."

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman


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