Chinese New Year in its homeland saw an award ceremony on China Central Television for the “Top 10 People of 2009”, among them a 71-year-old farmer of modest means who had spent 23 years taking care of needy people. CCTV and other major Chinese media (the Xin Hua Agency and People’s Daily) had nominated the man and he had risen to the top in an online poll.

Nothing too surprising about that, you might think; China is wont to make heroes of its workers in traditional communist style. Wang Ping An is a particularly interesting choice, however, because he is a Catholic — in a country whose government is deeply suspicious of the Catholic Church and recognises only a state-sanctioned “patriotic” version which owes no direct allegiance to Rome. All the same, its members — who certainly include Wang Ping An — are Catholics and, as such, objects of the Holy See’s pastoral concern and diplomatic efforts regarding the Chinese government.

It was an official Vatican news source that, earlier this month, broke the news of Wang’s celebrity status to the world, and that of another Catholic hero — a young university student, John Huang Chuan Ding, who died saving a little boy from an icy river. In a report written with an eye on Beijing, the Fides Agency said that the two men were “recent and eloquent testimony of how Chinese Catholics today are values and recognised by society and by the Chinese media in general.” We are talking about state-controlled media here, so these awards may be a sign of goodwill or simply a political gesture from headquarters.

A landmark report issued recently by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life rates countries according to their level of government restrictions on religious practice and/or social friction over religion. Global Restrictions on Religion shows that China is at the top end of restrictive governments — “primarily because of its restrictions on Buddhism in Tibet, its ban on the Falun Gong movement throughout the country, its strict controls on the practice of religion among Uighur Muslims and its pressure on religious groups that are not registered by the government, including Christians who worship in private homes,” says the report, adding, “The primary sources for this study report numerous cases of imprisonment, beatings and torture of members of these religious groups by Chinese authorities.”

On the other hand, China is low on the scale of social hostilities, probably because religious expression is a comparative novelty for today’s Chinese citizens and government rules are tight enough to stop different religious groups getting in each others way. They are all, so to speak, competing against the communist state. Vietnam, where there was an outbreak of official persecution of Christians (predominantly Catholics) last year, has a similar history and ratings very close to China’s.

The most restrictive governments among the most populous countries are those of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt, with Indonesia and Pakistan close behind, followed by Sudan, Afghanistan, India and Iraq. In most of these countries social hostilities also occur at a high to very high level. Brunei, Eritrea, Israel, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Somalia are smaller countries which also score high on either index. The Pew report notes: “Many of the restrictions in these countries are driven by groups pressing for the enshrinement of their interpretation of the majority faith, including through Shariah law in Muslim societies and through the Hindutva movement in India, which seeks to define India as a Hindu nation.” Outbreaks of violence against Christian communities are on the increase in Pakistan and India.

A striking fact that emerges from the report is that religious freedom is a comparative luxury in the world at large. Because the most restrictive countries include the most populous (notably China and India) nearly 70 per cent of the world’s 6.8 billion people live under highly restrictive regimes — despite, in some cases, constitutional and other written protections.

These restrictions range from the requirement to register for various purposes, to laws against proselytism. In 75 countries — 38 per cent of the total — “national or local governments limit efforts by religious groups or individuals to persuade others to join their faith,” says Pew. In nearly all countries (90 per cent) religious groups must register with the government for various purposes, but in 117 (59 per cent) “the registration requirements resulted in major problems for, or outright discrimination against, certain faiths,” the study found.

Western democracies, by contrast, are bastions of religious freedom — are they not? Certainly they are found at the lower end of a combined government-restriction and social-conflict scale (see page 31 of the report), but among the most populous countries, the least restrictive are a mixed bag of cultures led by Brazil, Japan, the United States, Italy, South Africa and the United Kingdom.

France and Germany fall into the category of “moderate” on both measures of restrictions, thanks, in part, to their high levels of Muslim immigration. France several years ago banned headscarfs and other conspicuous religious symbols (including large crucifixes) from being worn in state schools and is currently debating a ban on Muslim women covering their faces in public. Italy may also ban the face veil. However, these are mild restrictions compared with, for example, the ban in Saudi Arabia which prevents Christians even building a church. Muslims build mosques all over western Europe, and when Austrians voted in a referendum last year to ban minarets from the skyline they were severely criticised by liberals.

In England, which has an established, or state, church headed by the Queen — the Church of England — Christianity is in an apparently privileged position. But a policy of multiculturalism — an attempt to be even-handed towards immigrant cultures — combined with vociferous secularism and certain human rights causes, particularly that of homosexual activists, has seen Christians increasingly on the defensive regarding their own rights.

It is common now to read reports from the UK about Christian individuals resorting to the law to protect their freedom of conscience or religious expression. Recent cases include a British Airways employee who was sacked for wearing a cross which could be seen, and a teacher who also lost her job for offering to pray with a sick pupil. More serious are cases in which Christian employees or business people are under pressure to condone unmarried or same-sex relationships and even to approve the adoption of children by such couples.

An Anglican bishop and member of the House of Lords recently spoke in the House in favour of an amendment to an Equality Bill that he said could have seen Christians discriminated against simply for celebrating Christmas, displaying Bibles or saying prayers. There was mounting pressure on Christians to keep their faith “in some little box,” said the Rt Rev Michael Joynt-Scott. “There is also a much greater danger for our society that we could reach a point where Christians, and people of other faiths too, find it increasingly difficult to survive in the public service, and, indeed, in Parliament.”

To be sure, Christians in the Western hemisphere have brought a lot of their troubles on themselves — through watering down their own doctrines and moral codes, for example — and what they suffer currently is as nothing compared to the repression that some devout Christians, Buddhists and Muslim minorities labour under elsewhere. Do these persecuted minorities have to simply wait for a better regime to come along, or is there something they can do to make that day come sooner?

Farmer Wang Ping An (Ping An means “peace”) may provide a clue. Twenty-three years ago he started taking elderly people, abandoned children, sick, lonely and disabled people into his home and looking after them. “He accompanied 63 elderly people in the final stretch of their earthly life, taking care of everything, even their funeral. In 2000 he built a house with 50 simple rooms, taking out a loan, to give a home to all those who do not have one,” says Fides. By his own account he was simply living his faith: “Jesus taught us: ‘Whenever you did this to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”

A government that persecuted people like that would probably have popular riots on its hands. Officials who did not recognise “the great moral height” of a young man like the student John Huang Chuan Ding who gave his life to save a child would arouse suspicion and resentment. Authorities who really couldn’t see, in such examples, that a particular faith is compatible with patriotism, would soon be rare.

I have no idea what the answer to the religious issues of Tibetans is (and I will bet that Barack Obama does not either), or what would change the repressive attitude of Islamic authorities in Saudi Arabia or Iraq, but if Christians lived their faith more often in the style of Farmer Wang they might win the battle for religious freedom sooner rather than later. At least in some countries.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet