Chinese Christians Deserve a Better Label Than ‘Persecuted’

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Xi’s government isn’t friendly to religion. But its actions shouldn’t color how we think of believers there.

After decades of increasing religious freedom, has China swung toward militant atheism? That’s the takeaway of Religious Freedom Institute president Thomas Farr, who recently told Congress that “the assault on religion in China under President Xi Jinping … has justly been called a Second Cultural Revolution,” a nod to the final chaotic decade of Mao Zedong’s rule, when all religion was banned.

The “Administrative Measures for Religious Groups,” which took effect in February this year, put teeth into existing prohibitions against unregistered church gatherings, stipulating stiff fines for participants and those who host such activities. The regulations also double down on Xi’s insistence that religion be “Sinicized,” or made more Chinese. In the case of Christianity, this means severing the church’s Western connections and reinterpreting biblical teachings in order to conform to “socialist values.”

China’s Christians would generally agree that restrictions on the exercise of their faith are increasing under Xi’s repressive policies. But most would also view their country’s church in a much broader context that defies characterizing it purely in political terms.

In a similar way, as they acknowledge the reality of China’s repressive religious policies, Christians outside China need to stop seeing Chinese Christians merely as “persecuted.” By putting too much emphasis on politics, the familiar persecuted church narrative keeps Christians outside China from understanding the other dynamics at play in what has become arguably one of the fastest-growing Christian movements in history, accounting for one of the largest …

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