Standing up for Christians in China is about standing up for freedom of conscience

Woman reads prayer book at Cathedral in Beijing (CNS)

The persecution of Christianity is flourishing in certain parts of the world – if that is the correct term for it. The Chinese government, no friend to what it cannot control – seems to have embarked on a campaign of church demolitions. One seeming attempt at a demolition in the city of Zhejiang has been widely reported, as has the attempts by local people to stop the attempt. This might well be a bit of state sponsored persecution that spectacularly backfires. Let us hope so.

The church in Zhejiang is a Protestant one, and the majority of China’s Christians are Protestants. While on the subject of Chinese Christianity, let us not forget the plight of the Catholics in China, who are forbidden by the state to have ties with Rome, and are only recognised by the state if they join the state-sponsored Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. This represents blatant interference in religious matters by an avowedly atheist government, which is not just illogical, but betrays the Chinese government’s flagrant disregard for the rights of conscience. Religious people should be allowed to organise themselves as they please without interference from the state. That is the only correct way to proceed, and that is how things are in the West; and the West is right about this. This is one aspect of our Enlightenment heritage that we should all treasure: freedom of conscience, and freedom of association.

The idea of the individual having rights that the state must respect is highly problematic for the Chinese, given their history, and it is highly problematic in two other countries that escaped the Enlightenment, namely Russia and Turkey. Those who are following events in Ukraine will be familiar perhaps with the tortured history of religious relations in that country. After the Second World War, the atheist Stalin (who, like so many other atheists, seemed to have an obsession with controlling religion) forcibly suppressed the Greek Catholic Church. It was only with the revival of Ukrainian nationhood that the Greek Catholic Church was able to come out of the catacombs. As for Turkey, its laws have made the very existence of the various Christian Churches there highly problematic. According to Turkish law, for example, the Patriarch of Istanbul has to be a Turkish-born citizen, which narrows the field considerably, there hardly being any Turkish-born Greek Orthodox left. Meanwhile, in the Crimea, now annexed by Russia, it seems that the Greek Catholics are to face fresh state-sponsored persecution.

When will governments realise that religion is not their business and should not ever be their business? Let us keep on praying for our fellow Christians in Turkey, in China and those threatened by Russia. All three cases are very different, but in all three the same ideology underpins the persecution, that of statism. To their number we should add the countries also untouched by Enlightenment values, such as Saudi Arabia and similar places. But in the case of Turkey, Russia and China, Britain and its European partners have some leverage. If only they would use it. This is not a question of standing up for Christianity, it is a question of standing up for individual freedom and the rights of conscience. May Saint Thomas More intercede for us all.