Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Beijing Olympics gloss over the suppression of faith

Free to believe

Free Lance Star: DESPITE the harsh denials of atheistic totalitarian regimes, mankind has an inherent drive to worship, a "push" as the Encyclopedia of Religion calls it, "toward some sort of ultimacy and transcendence that will provide norms and power for the rest of life." That's why the right to believe unhindered by government can be called the "first freedom." It's also why, despite the enormously entertaining Beijing Olympics, we must continue to press the Chinese government in the area of human rights. For beyond the sheer artistry and wonder of the games lurks the dark side of China: The danger and discrimination faced by those who dare to believe.

Ten years ago, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Act--a template through which the United States promotes religious freedom abroad. One of the provisions requires an annual assessment of the state of religious freedom in every nation. Every year since 1999, China has been on the State Department's "countries of concern" list.

The Chinese government insists it allows religious freedom, but the truth lies elsewhere. Religious practice is confined to tightly controlled, registered groups. Access to Bibles and other sacred texts is limited. Proselytizing is prohibited. "House churches" are illegal. And anyone caught coloring outside these lines may be subjected to beatings, arrest, "re-education," or confiscation of property.

Activists like Carl Moeller of the Christian organization Open Doors estimate that 100 million Chinese "suffer some sort of repression or death for their faith" annually. Indeed, the State Department has found "credible reports of torture and deaths in custody of Falun Gong practitioners," as well as harassment and arrests of Muslim believers in that country.

The run-up to the Olympics was especially hard on Beijing Christians, according to Open Doors and other aid groups. Shi Wihan, owner of a Christian bookstore near the Olympic village, was arrested in March and labeled a "dangerous religious element" by police despite the fact that he sold only government-authorized literature. House church pastor Zhang Mingxuan and his wife, Xie Fenglan, were detained after agreeing to an interview with the BBC and shipped to a remote area far from Beijing. Others were blocked from attending services at the government-approved Kuanjie Protestant Church, where Mr. Bush was invited to worship. Clearly, the aim of the government was to pull the shades down on its abysmal record of religious freedom.

Mr. Bush, balancing forthright talk on human rights and diplomacy, walked a fine line in his visit to the Olympics. Noting that "God is love and no state, no man, or woman should fear the influence of a loving religion," Mr. Bush challenged the Chinese government to relax its death grip on faith. "The United States believes the people of China deserve the fundamental liberty that is the natural right of all human beings," he said. His words were quickly dismissed, but continuing to confront the Chinese regime privately and publicly is essential.

Governments will never be able to completely suppress the desire to worship. There is no escape: Even the start time of the games--8/8/2008 at exactly 08:08:08 p.m.--was chosen because the number 8 was deemed "lucky," not by the government but by Confucianism. And after six decades of official atheism, nearly a third of Chinese still consider themselves religious, according to the state-approved China Daily.

Americans, who have the greatest degree of religious freedom in the history of mankind, have a responsibility to advocate for the liberty of others. Long after the Olympics are over, that is the prize that will most please the Chinese people.

OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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