Beijing may be reluctantly warming up to Christianity, if its recent overtures toward religious charities are any indication.
Late last month, China held its first-ever Week of Religious Charity as a way to encourage believers’ philanthropic activities. A government news release praised religious charities for “gradually transform[ing] from simply meeting the material needs of service targets to paying full attention to their psychological, spiritual, and social needs.” And Beijing has also listed “encouraging religious believers to carry out charity activities” among its goals in its new human rights action plan.
Beijing has good reason for wanting more religious philanthropy. Christians have helped with societal problems from poverty to disaster relief, areas where the government response has been insufficient.” According to the Chinese State Administration on Religious Affairs, religious Chinese have donated more than $475 million USD in the past five years, with Christians giving the lion’s share. Catholics alone raised more than half of this sum.
In addition to being pragmatic, China’s new-found appreciation of Christian charities is symbolically significant. These political developments amount to a tacit acknowledgment that Christianity plays a positive role in Chinese society—an unprecedented admission from the government.
Nevertheless, Beijing’s evolving policy toward religious charities does not herald a renaissance of Chinese religious freedom; it is, in fact, an expansion of Beijing’s policy of controlling religion through bureaucracy. Recognized religious charities must work alongside so-called “patriotic associations,” affiliated with the Communist Party. Christian groups are forbidden from proselytizing, and bureaucratic barriers to philanthropy abound. Despite the encouraging rhetoric, any practical reforms may take a long time to implement.
And most important, the reforms don’t address the charitable work of Christians who refuse to register with the government and worship instead at so-called “house” or “underground” churches. But most of China’s Christians are unsanctioned, and they have been a remarkable asset to their communities despite decades of hardship and persecution.
Unregistered Christians’ social influence is all the more notable given their unassuming attitudes. Most meticulously avoid politics, instead throwing themselves into community service. Scholastica Chen, an underground nun, told me she thinks her job is simply to follow Christ’s example and “to be a servant, to humbly serve people in need.” No bigger agenda there.
For the past five years, Ms. Chen has worked at a Catholic nursing home run in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province. Affiliated with the underground diocese, the home can’t register as a charity, and Ms. Chen said the neighbors initially considered her a lowly domestic worker. It was an easy mistake—from morning to night, the petite nun cares for 15 to 20 elderly Chinese.
Like Ms. Chen, the home is humble, a white cement building dwarfed by the lush hills that surround it. Chickens roam the backyard, and Ms. Chen harvests eggs for her charges, hard-boiling them over a wood stove—the building isn’t equipped for gas. Funded entirely by underground laity, the home has become a much-needed refuge for its residents. Many come from impoverished families; others were abandoned when their children moved away or immigrated. The Catholic home takes them in regardless of whether they’re believers or not.
This service hasn’t gone unnoticed. The community has rallied around the nuns. When they go to the market to buy vegetables for the elderly, shop owners give them a discount or donate food when they can afford it. Another neighbor is a hair stylist, and she drops by the home to give free haircuts to the residents. Others help them get wood from the forest for heating and cooking. These neighbors aren’t Catholics, but they have grown to love the nuns and value their mission.
The county government has grown fond of Ms. Chen, too. Local officials invited her and her fellow nuns to be the guests of honor at a ceremony to open a small bridge not far from the elderly home.
Yet Ms. Chen said that friendly local officials come under pressure from higher-ups in government, who remain resistant to religion. The Chinese Communist Party leadership still sees unsanctioned Christianity as a potential threat to its authority. These politics have sometimes made it difficult for Wenzhou’s underground Catholics, throwing a wrench in plans to expand or open new nursing homes.
Ms. Chen is no stranger to trouble from the government. Her beloved uncle, who supplied her with her first Catholic study books, spent 28 years in prison for his faith. She grew up praying for courage and endurance, she said, and her uncle provided an inspirational example. As fate would have it, it’s now Ms. Chen’s turn to inspire. Instead of suffering for her faith, she’s relieving the suffering of others.
The actions of charitable unregistered Christians like the underground Wenzhou nun make it awfully hard for the government to justify its animosity toward their faith. And any charitable reforms will remain incomplete until they include all of China’s Christians.
Ms. Melchior is a Robert Novak fellow with the Phillips Foundation.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire