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Shadows Over Beijing Olympics

Country Still Lacking a Gold in Human Rights
By Father John Flynn, LC, ZENIT
August 24, 2008

ROME, AUG. 24, 2008 ( China's spectacular results in the Olympic medal tally are not matched, unfortunately, when it comes to its performance in respecting religious freedom and human rights.

The heavy-handed repression of Tibetan opposition some months before the games left no doubt about the firm resolve of Chinese authorities to stamp out any opposition. Neither did the crackdown on Christian activists days prior to the opening of the Olympic event.

Government authorities ordered Protestant Pastor Zhang Mingxuan to leave Beijing for the duration of the Olympics, according to the Aug. 1 edition of the South China Morning Post. The former businessman has spent the last 22 years journeying throughout China, engaged in non-authorized evangelization.

During the last decade or so he set up more than 10 house churches -- unofficial or unregistered gatherings of Christians. Of these, only three remain in operation; the government has closed the rest.

An Aug. 7 report from the Union of Catholic Asian News affirms that this Protestant preacher wasn't the only target. A number of bishops and priests not affiliated with the government-sanctioned Catholic Church were forbidden to administer sacraments or do pastoral work starting in late July, according to the report.

Regarding the situation in Beijing, UCA News cited information from underground Church activists who said that from early August most underground priests who had been working in the capital have returned to their hometowns until the Olympics end.

Thus, while some had hoped the games would help open up China to the rest of the world, it seems the opposite has occurred, according to an overview of the situation published by the National Catholic Register in its Aug. 10-16 issue.

The Register cited estimates of 12 million Catholics and 70 million Protestants in China. Of this total, most belong to the underground Catholic Church or Protestant house churches.

During the past year more than 600 Protestants were arrested or detained, 38 of whom were given sentences of more than one year, according to the article. Among Catholics there are approximately 35 underground bishops in prison, under house arrest or in hiding, according to data quoted by the Register.


Steve Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute, told the Register that hundreds of missionaries have been expelled from China. "There has been a tightening across the country," he said.

Within the Olympic Village competitors had places to worship and dozens of clerics available. This freedom did not go beyond the perimeter fence, commented an Aug. 10 article on religious rights in China, published by the Washington Post.

The article confirmed other reports of a crackdown by authorities, including arrests of religious leaders, denying visas to foreign missionaries and shutting down places of worship.

As well, several Beijing seminaries have been shut on the grounds that they were not registered with the government-approved bodies.

"An important reason for the crackdown is the Olympics. This year, Chinese leaders face more pressure from outside groups, house churches and even ordinary individual citizens," said Fan Yafeng, a law professor at the Institute of Law at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and a leader of the 80-member Sina house church, in comments to the Washington Post.

During the Olympics itself attempts by missionaries from the United States to fly into China in order to deliver Bibles failed, as Chinese customs officials confiscated the material, reported the Associated Press on Aug. 17.

Four missionaries from the Vision Beyond Borders group arrived at the airport in the city of Kunming with the intention of distributing the Bibles to people in the city. The group, based in Sheridan, Wyoming, distributes Bibles and Christian teaching materials around the world to ''strengthen the persecuted church,'' according to its Web site.

Olympic failure

On the broader question of China's respect for human rights, Freedom House recently published "China and the Olympics." The Washington, D.C.-based organization said that Beijing has intensified repression in several respects during preparations for the Olympics.

Freedom House commented that Chinese journalists face greater repression today than in 2001 when their country was awarded the Olympic Games. Not only do journalists still undergo Marxist indoctrination, but the Central Propaganda Department dictates content through daily directives.

The games also led to evicting more than 1 million people from their homes to make way for new facilities. As well, authorities detained hundreds of people coming to Beijing as "petitioners" seeking redress for abuses by local officials.

This was confirmed in an Aug. 2 article published by the Washington Post, which described how the Olympic Games became the occasion for action against "dissidents, gadflies and malcontents."

The article cited allegations from human rights experts, who said thousands were imprisoned in the pre-games crackdown.

International human rights groups also accused China of an increase in violations of basic rights. An Aug. 6 press release by Human Rights Watch said that the run-up to the Beijing Olympics "has been marred by a well-documented surge in violations of the rights of free expression and association, as well as media freedom."

Among the points raised by Human Rights Watch was the harassment and restriction of foreign media, in violation of pledges made by China when it was awarded the games. The press release also noted the removal from Beijing of migrant workers, beggars and other "undesirables" prior to the Olympics.

No protests

Authorities took careful measures to avoid any protests during the games, but as a concession they did announce the creation of special sites where officially sanctioned protests could be made.

On Aug. 19, however, the Los Angeles Times reported that Chinese authorities did not approve any of the 77 applications they received from people who wanted to hold protests at these sites.

The article cited information published by the state-run New China News Agency, which said that 74 of the applications were withdrawn because the problems "were properly addressed by relevant authorities or departments through consultations." The other three applications were not accepted.

While authorities might have stifled any local protests, they could not control the numerous reports by the international media on human rights violations. France 24, a French television channel, aired a documentary on illegal organ transplants in China.

According to the Aug. 7 press release published by France 24, hundreds of wealthy foreigners flock to China as a shortcut to the organ transplant that could save their lives.

The source of these organs, the French station alleged, is unwilling death-sentence prisoners. The press release said that each year China executes between 2,000 and 10,000 prisoners. According to Amnesty International, 90% of transplant operations in China come from executed prisoners.

France 24 said that authorities acknowledge the practice, but also maintain prisoners give their consent. Nevertheless, the French report referred to evidence from relatives of several executed convicts who denied consent had been given.

Meanwhile, half a world away, when Benedict XVI was on holiday in the north of Italy, he visited the birthplace of St. Joseph Freinademetz, an Italian missionary who spent most of his life in China. "It is important that this great country open itself to the Gospel," the Pope remarked.

"St. Joseph Freinademetz shows us that faith does not mean alienation for any culture, for any people, because all cultures are waiting for Christ and are not destroyed by the Lord: Indeed, [in him] they reach their maturity," the Pontiff commented. A maturity still lacking in China.

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