The persecution of Christians and other religious groups in China has “intensified” since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, a new report by watchdog group Freedom House found.
The report estimated that a third of all religious believers in China who belong to faith groups face “high” to “very high” levels of persecution ranging from bureaucratic harassment and economic exploitation to harsh prison terms and even deadly violence.
“Many spiritual activities practiced freely around the world -- from fasting during Ramadan to praying with one’s children or performing Falun Gong meditation exercises -- are restricted and can be harshly punished in China,” Sarah Cook, a senior research analyst at Freedom House, said in a press release. “The scale and severity of controls over religion, and the trajectory of both growing persecution and pushback, are affecting Chinese society and politics far beyond the realm of religious policy alone.”
Freedom House’s report focused on seven different religions practiced in China -- Chinese Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Tibetan Buddhism, and Falun Gong -- that account for more than 350 million believers.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington D.C. and the Chinese Consulate in New York City did not return Fox News’ request for comment.
While a burgeoning relationship between Beijing and the Vatican has led some Catholics in China to be optimistic about the future of the religion in the country, persecution of Protestants -- both unofficial and state-sanctioned -- has increased in recent years amid fears from state officials over the threat of “Western” values and the need to “Sinicize” religions.
Freedom House found that the approximately 60 million to 80 million Protestants in China have been particularly affected by cross-removal and church-demolition campaigns, punishment of state-sanctioned leaders, and the arrest of human rights lawyers who take up Christians’ cases.
On the other hand, China’s 12 million Catholics have seen a minor decrease in oppression from the state as the thaw between the nation and Vatican City continues. The Catholic Church appears to be on the verge of a breakthrough agreement with China to fill the more than 40 vacancies of bishops in the country that have opened up.
Skeptics, however, warn that by dealing closely with Beijing, the Vatican may betray the underground Catholic Church in China in favor of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association -- the government-controlled church in which bishops are installed by the Chinese government.
Cardinal Joseph Zen, the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, recently said that any deal with China would betray many faithful Catholics who must live out their faith in secret and often suffer under the communist regime.
“They don’t have much public voice, the underground,” Zen told LifeSiteNews. “People who come from China to see me, they all say, ‘please, you must raise your voice. We cannot say anything’ because they have no freedom to talk. So I keep talking, but it seems that [the Holy See doesn’t] listen. They don’t like to listen.”
Another religious group that has seen a sharp increase in persecution is Uighur Muslims.
Uighurs, who live primarily in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China and number about 11 million, have seen controls over their faith expand and deepen in the last decade. Among the crackdowns, Chinese authorities now closely monitor smartphone usage and force businesses to sell alcohol, while incidents of security forces opening fire on Uighur civilians also have become more common.
“After 2009, everything changed. Now the rule is, if I go to your house, read some Koran, pray together, and the government finds out, you go to jail,” Barna, a Uighur woman from Xinjiang who now lives in the United States, told Freedom House.
China is officially an atheist state, but somewhere between 185 and 250 million people in country consider themselves Buddhists. Chinese Buddhism – along with the indigenous Taoist religion – has seen very low levels of persecution by state officials in recent years.
“Xi Jinping has essentially continued the policies of his predecessor, Hu Jintao, with some rhetorical adjustments,” the Freedom House report stated. “For [Chinese Communist Party] leaders, Chinese Buddhism and Taoism are seen as increasingly important channels for realizing the party’s political and economic goals at home and abroad.”
The same, however, cannot be said for Tibetan Buddhism, whose practitioners have faced harsh persecution since Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s and China’s Cultural Revolution about a decade later.
“The party’s rigid constraints render it impossible for state-sanctioned institutions to meet the growing demand for religion in Chinese society,” Cook said. “The result is an enormous black market, forcing many believers -- from Taoists and Protestants to Tibetan Buddhists -- to operate outside the law and to view the regime as unreasonable, unjust, or illegitimate.”