Every semester, I put a lesson plan together in my Cultural Diversity class at the Suzhou International Foreign Language School, here in Suzhou, China. The class is designed to show how religiously diverse America is and how freedom of religion is an important part of our American culture.
Every American has the right to communicate their religious or non-religious beliefs it has become an intricate part of our American heritage.
The majority of Americans are in fact Christians but the United States is not a Christian Nation. Our country is religiously diverse a microcosm of people representing every man-made religion throughout the world.
It has been estimated that there are approximately 100 million Christians living in China. But the Chinese government has given many people the impression that it’s pro-Buddhism. The Chinese are well aware that for thousands of years Buddhism has been interwoven into China’s rich cultural heritage. The Chinese government does not want its citizens to lose their cultural heritage from western influences.
Most of China’s tourist destinations have Buddhist temples as part of their attraction designed to draw in the tourists.
On the other hand, Christian churches are restricted from being erected near those tourist sites. This has caused some tensions in China among Christian fundamentalists who feel their being persecuted by China’s pro-Buddhist attitudes’.
Some human rights activists backed by various Christian denominations, claim that the Chinese Government is running a campaign to strip Christian churches of their crosses. They proclaim in their literature that 1,200 churches in the Zhejiang province in eastern China had their crosses removed by the Chinese government. By their estimates, China is home to 100 million Christians, compared with the Communist party’s 88 million members.
Those same human rights activists believe China’s communist party perceives the growth of Christianity as a threat. However, Buddhism is the most favored religion in China, favored by both the Chinese people and by the Chinese government.
This has not stopped Christian leaders from filing complaints with the Zhejiang Province’s ‘Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau’. They claim hundreds of places of worship have had bright red crosses removed. Some churches have been completely demolished, while civil servants have been banned from practicing their Christian faith. Those same Christian leaders suspect that the anti-Christian campaign has the backing of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, and could be a “pilot project” before a nationwide crackdown.
Officials from Zhejiang’s ‘Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau’ responded to the complaints. Stating the government had “merely relocated the crosses out of safety concerns”.
“Generally speaking, the church staff and people are very supportive [of the removals],” an official added.
Christian communities both protestant and Catholic are extremely angry over the removal of the crosses. A group of Catholic clergy – including an 89-year-old bishop – took to the streets to protest. “What they are doing feels like something from the Cultural Revolution era,” complained one religious leader from Zhejiang.
Catholic leaders have also circulated an open letter claiming the removals of crosses from churches have gotten “completely out of control”.
The letter went on to say, “our diocese has been patient and reasonable – again and again we have shown tolerance, prayed, communicated and observed, hoping that the haze would clear.”
“But they have not stopped. Rather, they have escalated the campaign and have rushed to attack the cross, the symbol of peace and love,” the letter said.
Addressing China’s Christian population, the letter concluded: “Let us speak out.”
A five-story church in the city of Wenling was demolished recently; the government claims the Church was demolished voluntarily.
A government report states, “the church had expanded without going through the proper approval process.”
The report also goes on to say, “the building not only affected city planning but also posed a severe threat to road safety.”
Christian leaders are also claiming that the Chinese government’s “anti-church” campaign has gotten so far out of hand that government officials’ are deploying groups of incense-burning Buddhist monks to “provoke” Christians who are trying to defend their cross.
Protestant ministers are complaining also they believe Chinese officials’ – by sending monks to chant sutras in front of Protestant Churches is nothing more than a ploy to get Christian congregations riled up.
One Christian fundamentalist stated, “they’re trying to make us angry so that we retaliate against them.”
I tell my students that I’m not a religious person and I don’t particularly believe in religion. But we all can learn a great deal from Buddhism it has intrigued me for many years.
I understand why the Chinese government would endorse the Buddhist belief system - over all other religious beliefs and practices. Buddhism after all is ingrained in China’s culture and heritage. For many in China, especially, among the youth, Buddhism is more of an intellectual pursuit rather than a religious practice.
The majority of the Chinese do not have fundamentalist attitudes when it comes to religion. That is a good thing because I for one would not want to live in a theocracy.
I like to tell my students, - fundamentalism in any form is dangerous - it forces ill-willed people to live their lives ignorantly due to a lack of spiritual insight and a narrow minded belief system. You can find these extremists in every religion throughout history.
Religion is shaped by one's parents and by their parents' parents, but our spirituality is what we are born with. Spirituality is the spark, the essence, and the spirit that sustains us and all things. It's beyond rituals and religious symbols because it's the core of our existence. True spirituality is the torch that lights the way not religious principles that are imposed or mandated on others. It is lived and expressed freely in ones character for others to emulate and embrace.
Growing up as an American, I recognize the importance of having a separation of church and state in our democracy. Americans can worship as they choose without government intrusions. That is certainly a good thing for our democratic way of life.
America is far from being perfect but it has always been a beacon of light for people throughout the world.
People from all parts of the globe have sought to come to America. They do so in order to emulate and embrace our American way of life and that is why I’m proud to be an American.
Always with love from Suzhou, China
Thomas F O’Neill
U.S. voice mail: (800) 272-6464
China Cell: 011-86-15114565945
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