China's latest crackdown target: religion

Early on the morning of November 28, 2007, Jia Weihan was forced to think the unthinkable: Was her father really a bad man?

At the time, she was an 11-year-old attending a school in Beijing that taught her to respect the communist authorities. When 30 or so police officers arrived to arrest her father, she did not know what to think.

As it turned out, her father, Shi Weihan, the pastor of a house church, was simply trying to live out his religious beliefs. That should be a fundamental right, but in China - even the more economically liberalized China – it’s not.

Twenty-five years after Tiananmen Square - where on June 4, 1989, Chinese soldiers turned their guns on protesting students and activists - freedom remains elusive.

In China, Tibetan Buddhists and Uyghur Muslims face worse conditions than at any time over the past decade, according to a report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The report warns that independent Protestants and Catholics face arrests, fines and the closing of their churches. The government recently bulldozed one large church in the city of Wenzhou.

The report also highlights other restrictions, including these problems:

"Practitioners of Falun Gong, as well as other Buddhist, folk religionist, and Protestant groups deemed 'superstitious' or 'evil cults' face long jail terms, forced denunciations of faith and torture in detention, and the government has not sufficiently answered accusations of psychiatric experimentation and organ harvesting."

In Shi's case, he had decided not to tell Jia and her 7-year-old sister, Enmei, that he was printing Bibles and Christian literature. That was against Chinese law, so he did not want to put his children in jeopardy by letting them in on the secret.

Their children soon came to understand the secret, in a life-altering way.

Two years later, in June 2009, their father was sentenced to three years in prison for printing Bibles to meet growing demand. After he was released in February 2011, Shi realized he had to leave his homeland.

Authorities still were following him, so he applied to the Christ for the Nations Institute, an interdenominational college in Dallas. The school accepted him, and soon Shi, who also goes by the Anglicized name of John Stone, was on his way to Texas with his family.

One recent morning in his McKinney home, Shi, 44, explained what happened to him.

When 2008 approached and China was on the verge of hosting the Summer Olympics, the government did not want any messiness. No protests. No marches. No Tiananmen Squares.

That included no outcry over religious freedoms.

Going back almost 40 years, the government had allowed an official church. And it had given more liberties, as even Shi acknowledges. But the kind of house church that Shi hosted in his office, where he also ran a business, was not a state-sanctioned church.

A situation like this can be hard to fathom in the United States, where we have a multitude of religious options. It was for me upon meeting Shi in February, when he and other Chinese dissidents came by the George W. Bush Institute offices to discuss their experiences.

The institute, co-founded by the former president, works to promote human freedom and economic growth across the world.

Fortunately, the freedom to worship, or not worship, is a given in our country. When we think of religious liberty, the concept usually revolves around matters like whether the government can allow prayers at public events.

That question undoubtedly matters, but religious freedom presents a more immediate challenge to many others around the world who wonder whether their faith will get them thrown in jail, persecuted or even killed.

Some religious dissidents leave their homelands for more unfamiliar territory. Shi and his family ended up in a suburban community outside Dallas that once was a cotton-farming haven.

He now speaks to churches and groups across the U.S. about his experience and the importance of religious freedom. He also works with an energy company that turns trash into oil products.

Bob Fu suffered a similar ordeal.

Now the head of China Aid in Midland, Texas, Fu was forced into exile for practicing his religious beliefs in China. He captured his story in his book "God's Double Agent: The True Story of a Chinese Christian's Fight for Freedom."

Fu joined Shi this year at the Bush Institute offices. He reported that his organization has recorded 7,424 cases of persecution of Christians in China in 2013.

Denying religious liberty affects individuals most of all. But it also carries larger social and political consequences.

The lack of religious freedom undermines the rule of law. It can create social unrest by marginalizing believers. And it can threaten international stability, especially when extremist forces gain power.

Shi says he still prays for his country. That’s an appropriate response.

But there is a reason to remain vigilant about religious liberty, including something as simple as speaking out about the denial of such a right.

A fundamental human freedom is at stake.

William McKenzie is editorial director of the George W. Bush Institute, a public policy center in Dallas. The views expressed in this column belong to McKenzie.