Asian giant ranked with the worst government restrictions on religious freedom
By Deborah Gyapong
Photo caption: Andrew Bennett, former Ambassador of Religious Freedom, spoke at the sixth annual Parliamentary Forum on Religious Freedom April 3.
Countries that plan to build relations with China should be cautious, and Canada and the Holy See are no exception, warns Canada’s former Ambassador of Religious Freedom.
“We should be under no illusion that as China engages more and more with the political, economic and social frameworks of the world, that that is having any impact on their human rights record,” Andrew Bennett told the 6th Annual Parliamentary Forum on Religious Freedom April 3.
Rather than improving their human rights record because of engagement, “they remain unmoved,” Bennett said.
“This is a cautionary tale for those countries such as Canada and our allies that seek to have a deeper relationship with China” on trade, defence and other matters, he said. “We need to hold the Chinese government’s feet to the fire.”
China recognizes a handful of state-approved Patriotic Associations for various religions, including the Catholic faith.
“The Holy See is now in a process of trying to reach some kind of consensus with the Chinese government on the role between the Catholic Patriotic Association and the Roman Catholic Church,” Bennett said.
“I would caution the Holy See to be careful about whom they are engaging with, because there seems to be no desire on the part of the Chinese government to shift their approach, certainly not with Catholics.”
China is consistently ranked near the top of countries with the worst government restrictions on religious freedom, Bennett said, noting the latest Pew Forum research placed China at “at the very top.”
“Too often we treat China as special,” as if the country simply has different values and culture, Bennett said. “This is an argument for moral relativism at its worst. Either we defend religious freedom or not.”
David Mulroney, former Canadian Ambassador to China and now president and vice-chancellor of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, said the Chinese government is in the grip of a “blood-stained ideology” that reduces everything to a material and atheistic perspective.
The Chinese Communist Party is deeply anxious and insecure about its hold on power, which helps to explain its “inclination to repress, punish and silence those who aspire to a deeper and richer vision of human possibility,” Mulroney said.
Not only is the party deeply fearful of religious belief, but also of “thinkers, painters and poets.”
As ambassador, Mulroney traveled throughout China spending time with various faith groups, including Catholic, Muslim, and Tibetan Buddhist. He attended an illegal Protestant house church operating outside of the control and approval of the party.
“We were all complicit in an illegal act, daring to worship in something other than a space designated by the state,” he said. “But we were also enjoying the freedom granted us by the Universal Declaration (of Human Rights), that speaks of worship has having a private as well as a public dimension.”
Mulroney said his colleagues in Ottawa expressed great skepticism about the creation of an Office for Religious Freedom. He said it remains to be seen whether the new Office of Human Rights, Freedom and Inclusion, will be an improvement.
“Any country seeking to stand up for religious freedom and freedom of conscience abroad must be seen to support these things clearly and unequivocally at home,” Mulroney said. “Getting this right matters.”
The Forum also heard from representatives of the Falun Gong, Tibetan Buddhist, and Uyghur Muslim communities, which are viewed as “an existential threat to the Chinese State,” said Bennett, and subject to violent suppression, torture, and imprisonment.