Land of Spirits

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The maroon-robed 14-year-old with the gentle smile and penetrating gaze was settling in nicely last week after his dramatic escape from Tibet. Ugyen Thinley Dorje, better known as the 17th incarnation of the Karmapa, emerged for his first encounter with followers at a monastery outside the Indian hill town of Dharamsala, home to the exiled Dalai Lama. Although the boy did not speak to the gathering, his flight from China has set off a noisy controversy. Supporters of Tibetan freedom want New Delhi to grant him refugee status or asylum, which would infuriate Beijing. He needs to be protected, says Ngodup Tsering Burkar, translator for the previous Karmapa. The alternative is to yield to Beijing's pressure and send the Karmapa to a third country or even back to China. We're damned if we do and damned if we don't, sighs K.S. Bajpai, a former Indian ambassador to Beijing. The Karmapa controversy is the latest skirmish in China's messy, long-running battle with citizens of faith. The boy apparently fled Tibet to escape Chinese attempts to control Buddhism in that land, which Beijing's troops invaded in 1959. But the case is not an isolated one. Beijing is waging an all-out war against the Falun Gong meditation movement, is locked in battle with the Catholic Church and puts steady pressure on small Protestant groups that meet in people's homes. Religious and meditation organizations that Beijing deems threatening, like Falun Gong, are branded as cults -- paving the way to declaring them illegal.
Despite China's efforts to restrict religious expression, however, the spiritual awakening of its citizens isn't about to dissipate. Although the ruling Communist Party remains officially atheist, the collapse of Maoist ideology created a vacuum that religion is helping to fill. By official estimates, more than 100 million people follow Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and other faiths. Many people are looking for the help and solace they used to get from their work units or collectives, says Dr. Xu Yonghai, a psychiatrist in Beijing. A practicing Protestant, Xu is well aware of the risks. In the mid-1990s, he served two years in a labor camp, apparently for being openly religious. Several weeks ago, after finishing a round-the-clock shift at Beijing's Ping'an Hospital, Xu was detained again, this time for 24 hours of interrogation. His transgression: he had scheduled a New Year's Day Bible study meeting at his home and posted an invitation on the Internet. Four fellow believers were brought to the local police station and questioned for six hours.
Incidents like these are adding new black marks to China's spotty human rights record. The United States announced last week that it would renew efforts to censure China at the annual meeting of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva in March, even though eight previous attempts have failed. Last fall, the U.S. State Department labeled China a country of particular concern on religious freedom, along with Burma, Sudan, Iran and Iraq. Rabbi David Saperstein, chairman of a commission set up by the U.S. Congress to monitor religious freedom worldwide, says Beijing is showing signs of rising intolerance. In the last few months there has been a clear pattern of escalation, he says. The commission could propose pressure tactics designed to make China behave, such as restricting the country's access to U.S. capital markets.

China seems determined to maintain control over religion, regardless of the impact on its international relations. In the past six weeks, Beijing has outlawed several Christian groups -- with a total of perhaps 3 million adherents -- as illegal cults, according to Frank Lu, head of Hong Kong's Information Center for Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China. In December alone, says Lu, more than 100 Christians were arrested nationwide, while six Protestant leaders in Henan province were sentenced to labor camps for leading evil cults. In Guangdong province earlier this month, officials demolished a small temple built by local villagers and, in the process, injured a couple of elderly female protesters. When little old ladies are knocked over by the police, says Sophia Woodman, research director for Human Rights in China, a Hong Kong-based watchdog, it sends clear signals that the Communist Party will go to great lengths to prevent the formation of any organization outside its authority.

China's biggest battle is with adherents of Falun Gong, a meditation group that has set off alarms in Beijing because of its size and organizational ability. Believers are thought to number anywhere from 60 million to 100 million, including many members of the Communist Party. Angered at what they consider to be official mistreatment, Falun Gong members held a demonstration last April outside the government leadership compound in Beijing, provoking a swift and relentless crackdown. Last week a retired air-force general was sentenced to 17 years' imprisonment for links to the spiritual group. Other large sects are prompting a similar backlash. The Shaanxi province training center of Zhong Gong, a meditation movement that claims 20 million followers, was shut down last month.

Chinese officials aren't necessarily against citizens having faith. Party leaders have characterized religious followers as relatively hard-working and law-abiding. But the large size and shared purpose of certain groups pose a potential threat to the party's hold on power. Religion makes people flock together, says the Rev. Kwok Nai-wang, director of the Hong Kong Christian Institute. What could be more frightening to the leadership in Beijing? Premier Zhu Rongji last week publicly endorsed religious freedom, but he said the government needed to play a role in order to vigorously guide religion to become compatible with our socialist society.

China's religious wars defy easy answers. The Tibetan imbroglio, for example, is four decades old. Beijing views Tibetan religious leaders, especially the Dalai Lama, as potential heads of a separatist movement for the vast territory. Islamic devotion in China's far west is also feared in case it leads to nationalist fervor among the region's minority groups, such as the Uighurs, and separatism. Beijing's quibble with the Catholic Church is no less complex. For one thing, the Vatican represents a foreign center of influence over China's adherents. For another, it maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan, not the People's Republic. As a result, China doesn't allow its state-approved Patriotic Catholic Association to recognize the Pope as leader. On Jan. 6, the traditional day for bishops to be ordained in Rome, China's church elevated five of its own priests to the episcopacy, a move one Vatican official describes as a direct insult to Pope John Paul II.

Evangelical Protestants, who often meet in small groups in private homes, have long suffered harassment because they refuse to register with the government as a matter of religious principle. Many of these house churches, as they are known, convene without interference, but others have recently been branded cults and threatened by local government officials. Despite his recent interrogation, Xu continues to attend a house church, one of 1,000 he estimates are operating in Beijing. He blames his recent troubles on overeager officials and, in other cases, local police looking for bribes. He says China is actually becoming increasingly tolerant. That may be the case -- for the quietly devout. But as the Karmapa's escape from virtual captivity in a Tibetan monastery shows, religion in China can still be a perilous pursuit.

Reported by Jaime A. FlorCruz/Beijing, Hannah Beech/Hong Kong, Michael Fathers/New Delhi, Greg Burke/Rome and Barry Hillenbrand/Washington