We are very lucky, here in the United Kingdom: it’s been years since any cleric has been sent to jail for the crime of being a cleric. The Anglicans had some ritual martyrs in the nineteenth century who fell foul of the Public Worship Regulation Act of 1874, but these must have been the last men to have been imprisoned for a specifically religious offence in British history. The last Catholic martyr to be executed in England was St Oliver Plunket who suffered in 1681, during the Titus Oates disturbances, though anti-Catholic legislation remained on the statute books until the twentieth century, and only really disappeared with the Catholic Relief Act of 1926.
That Act dealt with such matters as Catholic religious orders being able to own property and be recognised as legal personalities, something which of course is not accorded the Catholic Church in some countries to this day. One such country (though its legal system remains opaque to me) is the People’s Republic of China, where only state-sponsored churches are afforded legal recognition, and other churches are harassed by the government.
This harassment seems to be increasing, as this report of the imprisonment of a Protestant pastor makes clear. The pastor in question is going down for twelve years, on a trumped up charge to do with a property dispute: in other words the State is taking full advantage of the pastor’s church’s lack of legal status to persecute him, and though him, his church.
Of course, the Chinese government does not like what it cannot control, which is a sign of tyrannical government, because government is meant to be limited by the rights of those who are governed. Moreover, law in China does not seem to protect citizens but to be an instrument of oppression in the hands of the rulers. And while on this topic, who are China’s rulers? Who appointed them? What is their moral authority? These are questions our own government should raise with Beijing.
The Telegraph reports the pastor’s plight, which has been highlighted by several American groups, and quite rightly too. The Guardian, meanwhile, points to the arrest of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. This too should be seen as the abuse of law by a tyrannical government. And let us not forget the campaign to bulldoze churches on the spurious grounds that they do not have planning permission. For these and other reasons, China should be regarded as a pariah state. They are very sensitive to criticism – so we should let them know it.
This state-sponsored clampdown on religion has one positive aspect, though. It is an indication that the Chinese government sees Christianity as a threat (rather as some of the nineteenth century Emperors did); this is a sign that faith is growing in China. It is a sign too, I believe, that one day China will be a Christian country, and the Communist Party a distant if unpleasant memory. Indeed, that day may be closer than we think. I am sure even now, brave Pastor Zhang, sitting in his cell (and God only knows what a prison cell in China must be like), is thinking that the battle has been joined, and victory is certain, and working out too how he can convert his guards and fellow prisoners to Christ.
Let us pray for him, and for the eventual victory of the Immaculate Heart of Mary over all who persecute God’s people, wherever they may be!