At a November conference, "The International Symposium on Evil Cults," the Chinese government urged local authorities to focus not on the beliefs of accused cults, but instead to assess whether they are "harmful to society."

Nearly 60 academics from all over the world attended the Beijing conference, which was full of familiar denunciations of the Chinese folk religious movement, Falun Gong. But leaders in the house-church movement, which resists government registration, were mostly concerned about the vague phrase "harmful to society," which could lead to their own groups' being classified as cults and subject to greater repression.

Says one Shanghai-based house-church leader, "Every house church movement could be accused of being 'harmful to society' simply because we refuse to belong to accredited religious bodies, which leads them to say, 'You must be a cult because you are being so secretive.'"

In fact, many house-church leaders have expressed surprise that the government did not crack down harder last year. Said one in Xian, "It's like the government has been distracted with Falun Gong."

Another in Beijing added, "In practice, many authorities are able to distinguish between a genuine Christian house church and a very unorthodox Christian sect or cult, but local police are often not so discerning."

Related Elsewhere

Read more about China's religious freedom record at, or at human rights sites like Amnesty International, Freedom House, or Human Rights Watch.

The testimony of USCIRF's Commissioner, Elliot Abrams, to the House International Relations Committee on the state of religious oppression in China is available online.

The U.S. State Department's report on religious freedom in China also offers insight into ...

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