Moments after celebrating the 70th anniversary of the first Chinese bishops consecrated in Rome, John Paul II delivered an emotional message to his suffering flock in China.
The underground church is a "precious pearl," he said, in a Dec. 3 broadcast into China on Manila's Radio Veritas. The pope praised the 6 million or more who refuse to surrender and join "a church that corresponds neither to the will of Christ, nor to the Catholic faith."
This was a clear reference to China's state-run Catholic Patriotic Association and the latest sign that John Paul won't surrender in China or Hong Kong. Still, his words drew little media attention. Few U.S. publications have much room, today, for international news and religion news remains a low priority. Thus, it would be hard to name a subject with less journalistic sex appeal than religion news on the other side of the world.
Meanwhile, China is cracking down -- closing many secret parishes and jailing clergy, including at least four bishops. Last fall, reports circulated about more attacks on China's 60 million or more underground evangelicals, while officials circulated a wanted list of 4,000 illegal pastors.
"It's hard to get precise numbers. ... But all the reports agree: more Christians are in jail in China because of their faith than in any other nation in the world," said Jeff Taylor of Compass Direct, a news service that covers global religious issues.
Recently, he noted, his Hong Kong reporter showed a Chinese leader a Far East Economic Review cover that said "God is Back." The Beijing official replied, off the record: "If God had the face of a 70-year-old man, we wouldn't care if he was back. But he has the face of millions of 20-year-olds, so we are very worried."
The China crisis was one of many in 1996. Christians were slaughtered in Indonesia and East Timor, where Catholic Bishop Carlos Filip Ximenes Belo was given the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet another Protestant leader was murdered in Iran. The slave trade continued in Sudan. Terrorists kept killing Catholic priests in Algeria. In Kuwait, Christians remained in hiding.
The oil keeps flowing from many of these nations, mixed with blood. Markets are growing, and so are the graveyards. What this story needs is a political hook to yank it into the headlines.
Last year, a coalition of religious conservatives and human rights activists convinced Congress to hold hearings on religious persecution. This year, the subject may surface in confirmation hearings for Secretary of State-nominee Madeline Albright. Also, Republicans may ask about the persecution of Christians in China and Indonesia, while digging into White House fundraising efforts among that region's amoral entrepreneurs.
But words are no longer enough, said conservative Jewish activist Michael Horowitz. It's time to pass laws similar to those used against the former Soviet Union in the 1980s. Clues to the shape of this legislation can be seen in a 1996 "Statement of Conscience" by the National Association of Evangelicals, which called for:
-- "Public acknowledgment of today's widespread and mounting anti-Christian persecution," including a presidential address, the appointment of a White House advisor on the issue and detailed rules for U.S. diplomats on how to deal with persecution claims.
-- "More fully documented and less politically edited" reports from the State Department's Human Rights Bureau. Human rights officers could, for example, be required to research claims of persecution, rather than choosing an "option of silence" in their annual reports.
-- Cessation of the Immigration and Naturalization Service's "indifferent," "occasionally hostile" and often unreported handling of asylum petitions by refugees fleeing religious persecution.
-- And, finally, the "termination of non-humanitarian foreign assistance to countries that fail to take vigorous action to end anti-Christian or other religious persecution."
"We're not talking about utopia," said Horowitz, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. "In the 1980s, no one could stand up and vote in favor of persecuting Soviet Jews. That's what has to happen now, if we're going to stop China and these other regimes from murdering and torturing Christians."