Over the past three days the posts I’ve been writing have emphasized the fact that many of the bad things we hear about government interference in religion in China are overstated. That does not mean though that life for Chinese Christians is completely free of gov’t interference.
When I first arrived in Longzhou the local church had been shut down for 3 months. The reason for this was that the pastor had left for training in Nanning, and the lack of a leader had led to some small problems in the already small congregation. The local department of religious affairs stepped in and closed the doors. To me it seemed like something that could have been solved in a few days of negotiations, as the church reopened before the minister returned.
Yesterday I mentioned the student who was baptized in the hotel bathtub, the school wasn’t particularly pleased when they heard about what had happened. The result was the school issuing a ban on any student attending any religious activity.
It happened that I was meeting with the head of foreign relations for the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA). I asked her what the students could do to protect their right to worship. Her response was, “As you can see we have made the laws that ensure religious freedom, but this is a problem of enforcement, so there is nothing we can do to help.” So while this freedom of belief is guaranteed by the Chinese constitution, there are no mechanisms for actually protecting it.
I also asked what was being done by SARA to promote social harmony between religious groups and atheists. The answer was that SARA had organized dozens of opportunities for Christians, Muslims, Daoists and Buddhists to come together and discuss their beliefs. She also stated it was important for religious people to understand the values of atheism and the party.
This meeting also featured an elaborate banquet that felt like they were trying to buy our support. They mentioned the price of several of the dishes, many were over $100.
In which case you might wonder why SARA exists. Even though I’ve had a chance to meet with them, I still don’t understand very clearly what exactly they do besides monitoring religious groups. When I visited Henan province, we were attending a meeting at a local (registered) church. Two men from the local religious affairs department came into the meeting and sat at the end of the table. Their purpose seemed to be to make us uncomfortable.
I hope some day China’s Department of Religious Affairs will actually work not only to promote understanding between different religious groups within China, but some day to actually create programs that connect atheists and people of faith. SARA should also be working to actually enforce the laws they write, in my humble opinion.