EDITOR’S NOTE: On Feb. 5, I spoke about the global persecution of Christians – particularly of those in China – with David Curry, president of Open Doors, a California-based ministry that supports and raises awareness about persecuted Christians around the world. The following is a transcript of our interview:
Benjamin Hawkins: How would you describe the current condition of Christianity in China today?
David Curry: “Well, the persecution in China I think is the most troubling developing situation (around the globe). And that’s because China has used the full force of its government. And this is what’s new: the most sophisticated surveillance and technology systems in the world, to monitor the practice of religious faith, particularly Christian faith.
“So what that means is that they are monitoring who comes into church, what’s happening in church, what’s being said in church. They, with their social credit system, seem to be penalizing religious behavior like church attendance, attending Bible study, and Sunday School for children, these kinds of things. So while they’re number 23 on this year’s World Watch List, I think it’s important to note that they’ve jumped over 20 spots in the last 24 months.
“But even more importantly, I think it’s important to know what it bodes for the future because they are clearly going to use this technology to squeeze, to clamp down on church.
“They’re going to use it to punish Christians. Already some Christians, because of church attendance or allowing your kids to go to Sunday School, have limited travel restrictions, limited travel. Their children may not be able to get into some of the schools they’ve been wanting to. So already you begin to see a squeeze on the church. But I think more troubling is that they’re selling this technology to places like Iran and elsewhere. And you can just imagine what this very sophisticated technology surveillance, artificial intelligence, the ability to monitor an individual’s religious expression and religious practice, in a sophisticated way. What would happen if that were in the hands of an Islamic regime, like Iran? You can begin to see why I am so concerned about what’s happening in China today.”
BH: Open Doors estimates that there are 97 million. Why are there so many Christians in China, even amid such intense pressure and persecution?
DC: “Well, for decades and decades, the Chinese Communist Party pushed this concept that there was no God, that there was no authority structure outside of the communist system. And that created a moral vacuum. And clearly the truth of the gospel has been very winsome and effective and powerful in China. It is true that there is almost a hundred million Christians. …
“The reason why China’s cracking down on Christians is not because they’re bad citizens – because clearly the moral framework (of the Christian faith) and the citizenship that it’s creating in China is very significant and positive. But the issue for the communist party is that there’s only 90 million Communist Party members, which means they’re looking around saying, ‘There’s more Christians than there are communists,’ and trying to find a way to use their power to keep this movement in check. To nationalize it, if you will. To bring it under the communist system, both in theology and in obeisance to their political agenda. So they’re going to use every means possible to try to stay in power, and that’s what I think you’re beginning to see in a very significant and dangerous way.”
BH: I think historian Mark Noll, writing about global Christianity, said that it’s not implausible to foresee a day when Christians are the leaders in China because of this huge population expansion of Christians. So you’re saying that the communist party is threatened by that possibility, correct?
DC: “Absolutely. What they’re looking to do is to make sure that no single group has the ability to organize in any way. So that’s why they’re cracking down on any church over 50 to 75 people. They’re trying to make sure they know who’s attending church and how often. They don’t want mega churches. They don’t want people with a wide reach.”
BH: With all the increased surveillance in China, how does this threaten especially the underground church in China?
DC: “Yes. Well the house church movement, which I think is what you’re referring to, has started to kind of come up into wider view. And obviously, what this is going to do, is it’s going to push people back into home groups, back into more of an underground movement. I think the church can potentially maintain strength and vibrancy in their faith, certainly in spite of this surveillance. But it’s going to mean that many of the churches that were above ground that had once been in the underground or house church movement – that now have 500, 600, 1000 people – are going to end up breaking into 10, 12, 20 different groups and that is going to be much more difficult for them to do anything in the sense of a larger community.”
BH: The impression I have gotten is that, since Chinese President Xi Jinping came to office around 2012-2013, the pressure against faith groups started to increase in China. Is that the right?
DC: “Yes. President Xi has consolidated his power within the communist system, potentially being what they’re calling president for life. But it also is related to his desire to return the communist system to what I call a no-God agenda, where they’re clearly pressuring not just Christians, but Muslims and others in their religious expression. They don’t want anybody to worship anything other than them and their system. It’s very much a return to the old Soviet days, in my view.”
BH: I have heard from some sources that there’s been thousands of churches shut down in recent years and that hundreds of missionaries had been expelled. Is that consistent with what Open Doors is seeing?
DC: “Well, what we can document this year is there’s almost 5,500 churches that were shut down in the last 12 months. So we know that’s happened. You know, and obviously there are others that we cannot document, for whatever reason. … So they’re squeezing the unofficial church movement either into the official church movement where they can be monitored, (where) sermons have to be approved, (where) people are being watched and tracked – or they’re going to have to go underground or be shut down. And in many cases, the pastors are being arrested, and it is a very serious issue.”
BH: How can Missouri Baptists pray for Christians in China?
DC: “Obviously not just for this issue, but for the Coronavirus that they’re dealing with. I think God is sifting this country, and I would love to see their leaders, including president Xi, come to God and open up for Christians, their freedom of religious expression.
“… we need to pray for pastors who are in prison. There are some people who have courageously spoken out and they’re serving long terms in prison.”
BH: How would you describe the Western church’s view of global persecution? What are some of the blind spots, fallacies, or viewpoints that may need to be corrected or improved?
DC: “Right now, the Western church, the American church, has been somewhat insulated from what’s going on in the rest of the world. We see persecution through the episodes that we hear about on major media outlets. And I just think that’s very limiting. First of all, because we can’t depend on that. The media may not have the best agenda, generally speaking. Certainly the major media won’t have our agenda at the heart of what they want to do.
“So what that means is, there’s a lot of persecution of Christians that’s going on, that’s happening, that’s not being covered. So we need to stay informed, stay prayerful. I think some of the intolerance that you’re beginning to see in the West towards Christianity is just the tip of the iceberg. It cannot be compared with what you see on the World Watch List. It’s much more intense on the World Watch List, but at least it gives us an insight into some of the squeeze and the pressure that Christians face around the world. Hopefully it’ll make us more prayerful.”
BH: There’s a famous statement from the early church father Tertullian: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Do you think that statement accurately describes what you’re seeing globally? Or is it more complicated than that?
DC: “Well, sometimes when persecution happens, the church grows. But sometimes it shrinks and shrivels. And I think it all has to do with whether or not the church is biblically-based, whether it’s staying in community. But the enemy clearly wants to isolate the church. You see this over and over and over again. China is going through this model of trying to isolate believers individually, in smaller groups. So, I think when we stay in community, when we stay focused on biblical teaching where we can help believers have access to the Bible, certainly there can be growth. But it’s not a given. It’s not a guarantee, because we have to be supporting, praying, working to that end.”