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
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
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
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
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
Other articles, short stories, and commentaries by Thomas F. O'Neill can be found on his award winning blog, Link:
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