China’s Religious Believers Beginning to Meet Social Needs
Despite years of government ambivalence and hostility, China’s religious communities are emerging as a strong force for meeting the country’s social welfare needs. This can be attributed to both the growing popularity of religion and increasing official support. In 2007, Chinese social scientists estimated that the country has 300 million religious believers, including approximately 100 million Buddhists, 70 million Protestant Christians, and 20 million Muslims. In 2007, Chinese president Hu Jintao pledged that the Communist Party would “bring into play the positive role of religious personages and believers in promoting economic and social development.” A year later, when a massive earthquake hit Sichuan Province killing an estimated 69,000 people and leaving over 4.8 million homeless, an unprecedented number of citizens, including many religious believers, volunteered and donated money to relief efforts.
The U.S. Recognizes the Chinese Government’s Support
In the 2010 International Religious Freedom Report and at our embassy and consulates in China, the U.S. Government recognizes the positive impact of faith-based aid and the critical role that the Chinese government has played in supporting its growth. Faith-based aid groups are at the forefront of meeting traditional and emerging needs that have accompanied rapid economic, social, and demographic change. In Sichuan, the staff of the Office of International Religious Freedom met an earthquake survivor who was especially grateful to a state-sanctioned Christian charity, the Amity Foundation, for sending volunteers who worked for over a year helping residents rebuild their neighborhood. Throughout the country, faith-based aid groups are also providing education and healthcare services.
Religious Restrictions Limit Faith-based Aid
However, current limits on religious freedom constrain the capacity of unregistered religious groups to provide social services. They cannot rent or purchase property, hold bank accounts, or hire employees. Over the past year, several groups have reported increased government interference with their religious activities. Authorities detained several Catholic bishops for refusing to participate in ordinations not sanctioned by the Vatican, prevented house churches from meeting, forcibly removed an estimated 300 monks from the Tibetan Buddhist Kirti monastery, and prevented Uighur Muslims from observing their beliefs, including going on hajj and wearing headscarves. These actions run counter to the significant steps China has taken over the last few decades to increase protections of religious freedom and to encourage some religious groups to play a larger role in society. Recently, a group of more than a dozen house church leaders petitioned the National People’s Congress to expand religious freedom for all. They emphasized that only a “multi-ethnic, multi-religious country [will] be able to form a peaceful civil society, bring about social stability, ethnic solidarity, and the nation’s prosperity.”
The U.S. Encourages China to Protect Religious Freedom
Religious freedom is a universal human right and fundamental concern of the United States. It is part of our engagement with all countries, including China. Religious freedom also has pragmatic benefits like the empowerment of faith-based service. At the rollout of the 13th Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, Secretary Clinton reaffirmed that when governments respect religious freedom they help make a country “more stable, more secure, and more prosperous.” Strengthening religious freedom will not only benefit U.S.-China relations, it will also create a firmer foundation for Chinese society.
Emilie Kao is the East Asia Pacific Team Leader in the Office of International Religious Freedom in the Bureau of Democracy Human Rights and Labor.