This past year was a bad one for China's religious believers, particularly Christians and Muslims. In January, military police closed a church in the province of Shanxi that had some 50,000 congregants—not by locking the doors but by dynamiting the building. In December, the government seized a church in the city of Chengdu, arresting the pastor and more than 100 of his parishioners, some of whom said they were beaten.
Both churches were guilty of operating without official permission under a new set of regulations designed to tighten the Chinese government's control of religion in all its forms. The organization Human Rights Watch says hundreds of unauthorized churches have been demolished in a campaign "to ensure that religious groups support the government and the Communist Party."
The Catholic Church has been forced into an uncomfortable accommodation to keep operating in China. Under an agreement reached in September, Pope Francis accepted seven bishops appointed by the government and gained a veto over the bishops Beijing chooses in the future.
It's not just organized Christianity that has been targeted. Individual belief also is under attack. In April, the government barred online merchants from selling the Bible, which may now be purchased only at church stores.
President Donald Trump is not known for his fervor on the topic of human rights, but his administration has made a commendable priority of focusing attention on Beijing's hostility toward religion. In September, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced "an intense new government crackdown on Christians in China." In October, Vice President Mike Pence raised the issue again, asserting, "For China's Christians, these are desperate times."
It may seem natural for a U.S. administration that has much support from evangelical conservatives to highlight the mistreatment of Christians. But it also has decried persecution of Muslims.
Communist regimes have long aimed at stamping out religion, which they see as a dangerous rival for the allegiance of their people. Beijing has seen the number of Christians grow by about 10 percent per year since 1979, according to the Council on Foreign Relations—to as many as 130 million. In a decade or so, China could have the world's largest population of Christians.
The Trump administration can't dictate what the Chinese government does toward its religious citizens, but it can make sure that the world is fully aware of its abuses—and that at least some of the abusers pay a price.
The Beijing regime, meanwhile, ought to consider whether it really wants to be the enemy of those at home and abroad who find meaning and understanding in faith—whether Christian, Muslim or any other. History shows that religions always outlast governments.