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When President Bush visited Beijing during the Olympic Games, he asked the Chinese government, "Why don't you register the underground churches and give them a chance to flourish?" Bush told Olympics broadcaster Bob Costas that President Hu Jintao politely listened to his request: "I can't read his mind, but I do know that every time I met with him, I pressed the point."

President Bush's instincts are on the money, though his point is just a bit off. Granted, some house churches in China are willing to register (in many cases to avoid arrests and disruption), but they often get turned down. Others don't want to and they shouldn't be required to. As in many other countries, registering as a church in China means state regulation, not a greater chance of flourishing.

Government pressure limits what Three-Self pastors can preach and pray about. Nina Shea, vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, told Christianity Today about a registered church in Beijing whose pastor prayed for victims of political imprisonment. Government officials raided the church and physically removed the pastor from the pulpit. Constant government surveillance of church services cannot help having a chilling effect on church teaching.

So, we should not be pressing for the government to register more churches. This is a half measure designed to keep trade relations normal while appearing to advocate religious freedom. Instead, we should be pressing China to give up the idea of registering churches.

Put another way, President Bush's well-intentioned comment suggests a more widespread problem in America's advocacy, or lack thereof, for religious freedom.

Department of Particular Concern

When determining the nation's stance toward ...

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October 2008

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