Faith may be a private matter, but the Chinese government takes no chances. The Chinese Constitution guarantees every citizen the freedom to practice whatever religion he or she chooses. In practice, however, every religion has to subordinate itself to the Chinese Communist Party. The power holders in Beijing are unwilling to risk having their authority eroded or usurped; for them, there is no distinction between those things to be rendered unto Caesar and those reserved for God.

The Chinese government’s refusal to grant its citizens real freedom was made manifest again this week during recriminations over the Catholic Church’s decision to canonize 120 Catholics killed in China. Pope John Paul II declared the 120 people — 87 of whom were Chinese Catholics and the rest foreign missionaries — martyrs because they died for the faith. Most were killed in the Boxer Rebellion, an anti-Western, anti-Christian uprising that took place 100 years ago.

Beijing condemned the decision, declaring it a Vatican plot to meddle in the country’s internal affairs. The media denounced the crimes committed by foreign missionaries in China, a list that includes selling opium, helping open the country to foreign influence and facilitating its subsequent division among the competing powers. To add insult to injury, the canonization was performed on Oct. 1, China’s National Day, a move that spokesmen said “seriously hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.” (The Vatican explained that the ceremony took place then because it marks the feast of St. Therese of Lisieux, patron saint of missionaries.)

Beijing has reason to be upset. Western scholars concede that the missionaries had mixed motives. The timing is suspect, and the sheer number of individuals that were canonized suggests that the Vatican was making a point. Moreover, the ceremony takes place against the backdrop of Pope John Paul II’s declaration last year that this millennium would belong to Asia. He vowed that the Catholic Church would proselytize in Asia and work to expand its reach throughout the region.

Nonetheless, a dispute between Beijing and the Vatican is one thing. The two foreign ministries can work out whatever modus vivendi they can to smooth relations between their respective governments. But it is quite another thing for Beijing to insert itself into the wholly private relationship between the individual believer and church authorities. And that is precisely what the Chinese government has done since the revolution that brought it to power in 1949.

Unwilling to tolerate any power that was not subject to its own authority — and concerned about the church’s attitude toward Communist governments — Beijing broke all ties with the Vatican in 1951. It then established the China Patriotic Catholic Association to administer churches and ordain bishops without Vatican approval. The “official church” claims 4 million members. The “underground church,” which is still loyal to the Vatican, claims 10 million followers, all of whom are subject to persecution.

The campaign to stifle religious dissent even spilled over into Hong Kong, which is supposed to be free of Chinese influence in such domestic affairs. According to the Catholic Church in Hong Kong, Beijing told local church officials to keep low-key its own ceremonies to commemorate the canonization. The Hong Kong church admirably refused.

The Catholic Church is not the only target. Last year, 95 Protestant church leaders were detained by the authorities. Leaders of so-called syncretic congregations, which combine Christianity and local religious practices, have also been the target of a crackdown. In its annual report on human-rights practices, the U.S. State Department noted a marked deterioration in religious freedom in China over the last year.

China’s heavy hand was also visible last weekend, when over 1,000 practitioners of Falun Gong were arrested during peaceful protests in Tiananmen Square. The sect, which claims to have some 70 million members, has been the object of the Chinese government’s wrath since it was branded an “evil cult” and outlawed by the Communist Party in July 1999. Reportedly, another 600 followers were rounded up across the country before that outbreak of protest.

Falun Gong may be more than a morning exercise group; it may even rightly be labeled a sect. But there is no evidence that it is “evil,” nor that its members are engaged in any illegal activities — apart from belonging to the group. The “crime” committed by Falun Gong members is daring to take the words of the Chinese Constitution for what they mean: They assume that they are free to believe as they choose, and to honor a faith — any faith — that gives them strength when they most need it.

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