On March 1, 2018, during the 37th session of the Human Rights Council (UNHRC) at the United Nations, the Coordination of Associations and Individuals for Freedom of Conscience (CAP LC) organized a side event on the denial of religious freedom in China and the case of The Church of Almighty God.
A panel of international scholars and experts of human rights and religious freedom discussed the hard situation of the members of The Church of Almighty God both in China, where they are severely persecuted, and in South Korea and Europe, where their asylum applications are often denied. During the event, attendees also watched a video with testimonies of three Christians of The Church of Almighty God who suffered brutal persecution and torture at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Three Chinese delegates in turn raised questions defending the CCP’s violation of religious freedom in China and persecution of The Church of Almighty God, while some western scholars responded with persuasive facts accordingly. The wonderful debate between them drew general concern.
Here is the full text of the debate between the Chinese delegate and Prof. Massimo Introvigne, a renowned scholar of new religious movements and managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), and Ms. Rosita Ṧoryte, the president of the International Observatory of Religious Freedom of Refugees (ORLIR).
Chinese Delegate: Can I take this opportunity to express my opinion?
Chinese Delegate: Okay. First, we firmly oppose the groundless calumny against China’s religious policies. China is a multi-religious country. Protection of religious freedom is a basic national policy in China. Chinese citizens can freely choose and practice their belief. It is protected by law. You can find it in Chinese Constitution. I can google some statistics to prove my opinion. There are more than one hundred million religious people in China, and over 5,500 religious groups conduct activities in China. The Chinese government input 30 million yuan per year to build and repair religious places, such as mosques, temples, and the churches. So, I think it’s convincing that religious freedom is protected in China. However, “Xie jiao” is not the same thing. “Xie jiao,” they distort the doctrine and make use of people’s religious belief to carry out illegal activities. Chinese authority punishes criminals according to law, and our purpose is to better protect normal activities and right to religious belief. I believe, in a word, there is no government that could allow criminal crimes under the guise of religion. So, that’s my opinion. Thank you!
MC: Thank you! Maybe I miss it, did you present yourself before?
Chinese Delegate: I’m with Chinese government. I’m from Beijing.
MC: Yes, thank you! So, I will give the floor to Mr. Introvigne to answer you.
Massimo Introvigne: Thank you! I believe it’s an important contribution as it was clarified by one of the speakers, but I want to clarify it myself. We do not pretend to give lessons to China. We are very well aware that even in the West, there are problems about religious liberty, our institutions are not perfect, and particularly groups labeled as “cults” have been discriminated, persecuted for many years in European countries. There is a debate even in the United States in these very days because television series are questioning, whether in incidents such as the one in Waco, Texas, really the police handled the situation according to the law. So, I don’t believe we are in a position to say we are the good countries, some other countries are bad. But that’s completely foreign to our attitude, and certainly to my attitude.
And I’m very grateful to the Chinese authorities for having invited me twice in 2017 and also in previous years to China to discuss these issues with them. So, I believe dialogue is very important, and so we should make an effort to understand how the Chinese system operates and what are the reasons behind China’s attitudes. On the other hand, dialogue always goes both ways, so we listen, we fully respect the position of the Chinese authorities, but when we were kindly invited to China, we also presented our different points of view.
So I believe a key comment in your representation is that “Xie jiao” distorts the doctrines. Now, distorting the doctrines, in our Western, European, and American legal system, is not a crime. And again, as I say, our system is not perfect. But distorting the doctrines cannot be, in our opinion, constructed as a crime, because what is the distorted doctrines for one person is the truth for the next person. So, we absolutely agree that people who commit crimes, people who kill people, people who abuse women or children, they should be punished.
Our concern, however, with your Article 300 of Chinese Criminal Code, and with the interpretation of Article 300 in January 2017 by the Chinese Supreme Court and the Chinese Supreme Procuratorate, is that in the definition of criminal activities by “Xie jiao,” there are crimes such as spreading superstition or preaching false doctrines, and that is exactly the point where we do not agree. Because how to define “superstition,” how to define the true doctrines or false doctrines? Again, what for me is a true doctrine perhaps for you is a false doctrine, what for you is a true doctrine perhaps for me is a false doctrine.
So, we should surely continue this dialogue, and as we try to understand the rationale for the Chinese attitudes against “Xie jiao”—and as I say I understand that dates back to the Ming period, it’s not new, it’s a constant in Chinese history—I believe the Chinese side should also try to understand the different points of view and the fact that International Conventions don’t really allow for discriminating against the religious groups or what they believe, false teachings, distorted teachings, heterodox teachings…. So, of course, common crimes should be punished, but nobody should be persecuted for simply believing something other people do not agree with. But again, I thank you for your intervention and I hope the dialogue can be continued in the next years.
Massimo Introvigne: Can you introduce yourself?
Chinese Delegate: Sir, Thank you! I am a staff from Chinese Association for International Understanding. Just want to ask a question that, have you ever gone to China and got some first-hand materials about these cases related to The Church of Almighty God? Why I ask this question? Because that to be honest, there are too many rumors and fake stories on the Internet today all over the world, you know. Even though the stories are told by the people and experienced by themselves, the stories might not be the entire truth. And in the video, only the adherents of Almighty God were interviewed, but we didn’t get any words from the Chinese officers and police.
I think we should interview one side, and should interview the other side. And that can give us the entire truth. And I also noted that the interviewees in the video they’re dressed well, the color of their skin looked light-yellow, I mean they looked they were not working on the land. As I know that many adherents in China of Almighty God, they are usually Chinese farmers. So, I think that, I suggest you prepare a trip to China, and go and see and do some real investigations or surveys on the issues that we’ve talked about. Thank you!
Massimo Introvigne: Thank you for your kind question! That is exactly what we did. Here you see a report published by KK News. That’s a government agency about my trip to China. And I spent eight days in Henan with the 610 Office of the police. I was invited by the Chinese Anti-Cult Association with another three American scholars. And we toured all Henan, unfortunately, we did not meet with actual members of The Church of Almighty God. That was not allowed by the Chinese authorities.
But in all the different cities we visited, we met police officers, and we met former members of The Church of Almighty God, which have been “reformed” in the labor camps, and they told us their stories. So that is exactly what we did. My study on The Church of Almighty God, particularly the crimes ascribed to The Church of Almighty God, is completely based on documents we received from the Chinese authorities. I didn’t receive any documents on the McDonald’s murder, for instance, by The Church of Almighty God. They don’t have any documents about it. That was done by a different group. Or you can find there my article on the McDonald’s murder.
All the documents quoted there are documents we received from the Chinese authorities. So, I thank you for your suggestion! It makes a lot of sense, that is exactly what we did. We went to China, we interviewed police officers; we interviewed the former members of The Church of Almighty God, some of them were “reformed” and today are members of the Communist Party; we interviewed some relatives of members of The Church of Almighty God, who are members of the Chinese Communist Party and are very much against The Church of Almighty God. You are perfectly right. That’s the common work scholars should do, and that’s exactly what we did.
But on the other hand, we also interviewed members of The Church of Almighty God in South Korea, in Europe, in the United States. We would love to do this in China, but it’s an underground organization, we were not allowed. So, I believe we did our homework. One of the results of our homework in our last observation is very interesting. It’s that the reports in some early Chinese studies, that the average member of The Church of Almighty God is a peasant—these reports are inaccurate.
Statistically, the majority of the members of The Church of Almighty God are middle class. So, it is not surprising that they don’t look like peasants because they are not peasants. That was reported in some of the very early studies of The Church of Almighty God written six, seven years ago. But one of the interesting results of our studies, is that this is basically a mistake. Most members of The Church of Almighty God are middle class. They are not farmers.
Chinese Delegate: Yes. I mean next time maybe you should put some officers’ words in the video. And we look, we hear from different sides and we can totally know the entire truth from both sides.
Massimo Introvigne: That’s very good. But of course, this is an event presenting our point of view. When I went to an event in China, you see the picture, that was the event in Zhengzhou about The Church of Almighty God. I saw videos by the government against The Church of Almighty God, and I didn’t see any video favorable to The Church of Almighty God. I was not scandalized. That is normal. If I go to an event organized by the government in China for criticizing The Church of Almighty God, I don’t expect that they offer to me the point of view criticizing the government. So that’s more or less normal. If Ms. Šoryté wants to say something …
Rosita Soryté: No. It’s just … that is the paradox. When you’re invited by the Chinese… the Chinese government is inviting you, they gave only their version. So, it’s strange that you are now surprised that this is another version. But the normal dealing is that everybody would sit together and talk, but we cannot talk if we insist “our choice is right.” The dialogue usually is supposed to be by both sides in some way, that there are some things, but the dialogue is essential. And there are the scholars, because Massimo talked only about himself, but in the photo, for instance, as you see, Gordon Melton, an American, very renowned American scholar who went to China—we don’t know how many times, he’s spent years—and now he has different opinions and he is more on our side. So, it’s clear there are things that may be discovered.
Just saying that everything is fine is not enough, because the facts, because when there is some accusation, it should be facts, but on both sides, not only on one side. You cannot expect only the members of The Church of Almighty God to provide both truths. I saw, I saw personally, I saw the people who are suffering from the traumas of the torture. I saw it myself and they are seeking healing because they are damaged. And it’s not just coming like this because some just decided to be bad people, so it’s very complicated, it’s on both sides complicated. And it’s the dialogue, I have to say, is the best thing to do.
MC: Sorry. Just to deeply understand that this side event is not to criticize. It’s not of that type. It’s a way to open the dialogues, and we are here to open the dialogue, to find solutions. So, now I’ll give you the floor.
Chinese Delegate: Sir, as I know, the Chinese judicial officers, including policemen, prosecutors, and judges, they will be responsible for their duty behaviors for life, according to the law, so if they were found to have any wrongdoings, even when they retired, they will be punished by the law. So it’s obvious that they will not do illegal things, such as torture their criminal suspects, beat them or be rude to their suspects’ relatives. So, I don’t know their source of their video, but for me, I think it’s hard to believe. Yes. This is my opinion. Thank you!
Massimo Introvigne: Thank you! That is merely an opportunity to insist on the dialogue. Here you see this man is Professor Gordon Melton, he’s a very well-known scholar from Baylor University in Texas and he has lectured to Security University, the university of police in Beijing, discussing The Church of Almighty God. One of the results this Monday this week, Professor Zhang Chunli, I don’t know if my pronunciation is right, of Security University in Beijing arrived in Texas a few days ago at Baylor University to train for six months under Professor Melton.
So, this dialogue is continuing: We go to China, a professor from the Security University, a university of the police is going to the United States for training and discussion. Now, of course there are in China laws against torture. I’m Italian, there are these laws also in Italy, but recently, six policemen were sentenced to heavy jail penalties in Italy for torturing suspects. So, it happens all over the world. Of course, there are laws against torture and abuse, but torture and abuse may happen. It happens in the United States, it happens in Europe, I will not exclude that it may happen also in China. Again, it’s important that you understand we’re not here to distinguish between good countries and bad countries. These abuses also exist in the United States and Europe, but we listen to evidence, to people who claim to have been tortured in China. And we believe their voices deserve to be heard.
As for the laws, that’s exactly the problem, and that’s what makes this dialogue fruitful and interesting. Of course, the members of The Church of Almighty God are persecuted according to the law, but most of them are sentenced, there are documents about it, they are sentenced under Article 300 of the Chinese Criminal Code, and we believe that Article 300 is wrong. It is a law incriminating activity on behalf of certain religions labelled as “Xie jiao,” and it’s interesting, if you study Article 300, for instance, there is a study by Professor James Richardson, he is an eminent scholar of law, and that he is an eminent scholar of law who has been recognized by the Chinese authorities.
They have invited him repeatedly to lecture in China including in the Security University in Beijing. And he studied Article 300 and concluded Article 300 punishes people simply for being active or doing missionary activities on behalf of certain religions or cults, ok, “Xie jiao.” And that’s something we do not agree with. Again, if people steal, murder, abuse children, abuse women, they should be punished. But if people simply say, “We believe that a certain woman is Almighty God,” or “We believe in UFOs,” that should be free. Nobody should be punished because of his or her belief. We understand that’s a cultural difference, that the “Xie jiao” legislation exists in China since the 18th century. It’s not invented by recent authorities. But that’s the point of disagreement we should frankly and sincerely discuss.
I just would like to underline that this meeting is not about proving or discussing about the torture. Torture is one of the persecution’s elements, because if you see the title of the event, here it is said, it’s the Religious Freedom and Anti-Cult Persecution in China. Because there is first, intolerance. There’s discrimination. There’s persecution, and then it might be torture. So, they’re not really trying to prove that they are really the guards that they know, and they had made…. It would be too much. What we’re discussing here is persecution. And the persecution, I believe it is clearly in the law, the lists of the groups are facing challenge. It’s clearly there and it is persecution.
That’s all we say. The rest is not up to us, because torture is a very serious crime, and it’s different, it’s covered by the conventions on persecution and there are different mechanisms to do it. It’s not what we do here. Here it is different, is a very simple thing we try to say and to prove this argument that the members of The Church of Almighty God are persecuted or discriminated, and it’s higher, it’s persecution. So, they cannot freely express their beliefs in China, that’s it. So that’s a very simple conclusion. They cannot. Even you, perhaps you would agree that they cannot, because the Chinese government is perceiving them as something bad. That’s, I believe mainly what the meeting is all about and we should stay within the frame of this, and not go really really far, and we have already a very difficult discussion, that we are not entitled to have. Thank you!
Chinese Delegate: I have another question. Do you know what the adherents of Almighty God do to the Chinese public on earth? Because I know they are involved in many issues of crime like fraud and suicide, and I think there are a few words about these crimes, I think. I want you to tell me more on this.
Massimo Introvigne: Yes. As I said, we were invited to China for a week-long tour of Henan, talking with police officers, some of them are high place police officers. And after we went to Henan, we digested the materials we collected in Henan in June 2017. We were invited for a second seminar in September in Hong Kong. Again, with high place Chinese police officers in charge of dealing with “Xie jiao,” the so-called Office 610 came to this conference. So, crimes, it’s very interesting. I mean, I have studied violence connected to religion for 30 years, so we asked the Chinese-side police to provide documents about these crimes, and we were provided with a number of documents on some crimes. On other crimes we were told there are no documents because we were told the documents disappeared or all the procedure was not done in writing. So, very shortly, there are four main incidents we have received documents about.
Number one, the McDonald’s murder in 2014 in Zhaoyuan, you will find my study on the table, and we have recently discussed with Chinese scholars, members of CCP, including with Professor Zhang. She is now studying in Texas, and she basically agrees my article is correct. It was a different group who used the name of Almighty God but recognized a different “Almighty God,” not the same person this group recognizes as Almighty God.
Number two, there was a case of a boy whose eyes were gouged out in Shanxi. And documents, again, the documents from Chinese sources because The Church of Almighty God says they have nothing to do with it. So, they don’t have documents about it. While studied by another scholar who was invited for two trips to China, Professor Holly Folk—she teaches in Washington State in the US—again, you’ll find there an article she wrote, and Chinese police closed the investigation by saying the boy’s eyes were gouged out by the boy’s aunt who later committed suicide. She is not a member of The Church of Almighty God. And only one year after the McDonald’s case, some Chinese media started involving The Church of Almighty God. But that’s not what the documents say.
Case number three, the riots in 2012 about the prediction of the end of the world in 2012. Yes, while I was in China it was confirmed that many Chinese believe the so-called Maya prophecy that the world would end in 2012. Perhaps in these riots there were some members of The Church of Almighty God, but The Church of Almighty God, as an organization, issued documents that this belief was false. That makes sense as I know the theology of The Church of Almighty God, and I’ve studied it quite in depth.
The Church of Almighty God does not believe in the end of the world in 2012 or in any other date, but believes the world will be transformed to a better world, but will not be destroyed. In those they believe that the transformation of the world can only take place after the person they recognize as Almighty God will have completed His mission. And as Mr. Roux mentioned, even Emily Dunn, she is an Australian scholar, she doesn’t like The Church of Almighty God but in her book about The Church of Almighty God she clarifies that those members who spread the 2012 prophecies were disapproved by the leaders of The Church of Almighty God. Some of them were excommunicated or expelled.
Number four, in 2002, 16 years ago, some pastors of a Christian Church called China Gospel Fellowship claimed to have been kidnapped by The Church of Almighty God for purpose of conversion. Here the case is very interesting because the Chinese authorities never opened up an investigation, there is no police investigation and there is not a court case. And we are asked to believe these pastors and lay leaders of China Gospel Fellowship, but their story is not very persuasive. And again, you’ll find an issue of a scholarly journal with an article I wrote based on the existing documents, which are not the police’s documents because the police never investigated this case, and the documents by this Christian group. And these documents are not very convincing.
They are very good for a novel, actually, two novels were written about this case, but novels are one thing, and the reality is something different. I know there are other accusations, you can find them even in Wikipedia very easily. But about these other two or three incidents, which are very old, back to twenty years ago, I asked personally the Chinese authorities to provide the documents, and they told me that there are no documents. So, I cannot say anything here, they fall into the category of rumors, because when there are no documents, they are rumors. They are not facts.
MC: Thank you for your answer!