On Aug. 31, Zhou Heng, a Chinese Christian house church leader, was accused of “illegal business operation.” Police officials detained Zhou for a month, reports say, during which time officials forced him to sleep on the concrete floor and instructed his 14 cellmates to physically assault him.

His alleged crime? Receiving a three-ton shipment of Bibles.

Indeed, while Christianity thrives at Georgetown, across the globe in China – a country with which university officials have sought since 1970 to foster a strong relationship – the story is quite different.

The Chinese government, though its constitution endorses freedom of religious belief, has a history of restricting the practice of many religions, including Christianity.

Around 12 million Catholics exist in China today, seven million of whom practice “underground” as unofficially sanctioned worshippers. The Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, a division of China’s Religious Affairs Bureau, must officially monitor all Catholic activity. In order to maintain recognition by the government, the CPCA must reject allegiance to the Pope in addition to rejecting any laws or rules the Church passed after 1949, the year that former Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong came to power.

At the heart of China’s restrictive practices is not a desire to dampen its citizens’ religious beliefs, but rather a concern that religious affiliations may detract from their obedience to the government, said Francisca Cho, an associate professor in Georgetown’s theology department.

“I don’t think the government cares what people might believe,” she said. “Religious devotion [may] entail . transgressing or disregarding state law [and] potentially political mandates. That’s the primary concern.”

Christianity has long suffered a bumpy history in China.

During Mao’s Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, the government closed all churches and purged, tortured and stripped citizenship of clergy members as part of Mao’s attempt to reinvigorate communist fervor among the population.

With the end of the Cultural Revolution came increased religious tolerance and a constitution that allowed for religious practice. Georgetown was a leader in religious discussion with China at this time.

In 1979, Georgetown sent 18 scholars from the university’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics to the country. Fr. Richard McCormick, S.J.’s, reflections on the journey to China as a Kennedy Institute scholar, “The China Trip,” depict the effects of the Cultural Revolution, during which Mao’s attempts to reinvigorate the population with communist fervor resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, including the purging of artists and religious clergy. The Kennedy Institute scholars met with Chinese priests who had faced imprisonment and torture for a quarter of a century, as well as Chinese professors who had been systematically punished during the Cultural Revolution.

Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese relations with Catholicism have remained far from perfect. The government specifically finds fault with the Vatican for recognizing the legitimacy of Taiwan.

The Vatican has recently made efforts to reconcile Catholicism and China. This summer, Pope Benedict XVI sent an open letter addressed to Chinese Catholics that expressed hope for a renewal of relations between China and the Vatican.

Cho said that this does not mean their reconciliation will become a reality. “This is the exact sort of thing the [Chinese] government fears,” she said, referring to the fear of Chinese Catholics declaring allegiance first to the Pope and second to the government. “[This] is when [the government] feel[s] religious individuals and entities are encroaching on the prerogatives of the sate to have absolute authority.”

Chinese society has, however, participated in some religious dialogue of late. Several members of Georgetown’s Jesuit community traveled to China in recent years. Fr. Dennis McNamara, S.J., traveled to China in the summer of 2005 and again in the spring of 2006 as provost advisor on international initiatives with special responsibility for academic exchange in Asia. Fr. John Witek, S.J., a professor in the history department, and Fr. John Siberski, S.J., director of residency education and geriatric psychiatry at the Medical Center, have also been involved in the Georgetown’s initiatives in China. Witek declined comment, and Siberski did not respond to numerous phone calls and e-mails seeking comment. McNamara did not wish to elaborate on his work in China.

Georgetown students also study abroad at The Beijing Center, a school whose mission is to educate Jesuit university students about China. Three students are studying abroad there this semester.

TBC’s library contains a large collection of materials on the history of Christianity in China. According to TBC’s Web site, the library’s purpose “is to document not only the ups and downs of the Catholic Church in China, but also the contributions of missionaries and Chinese Christians alike to China” in both academic and cultural ways. TBC publishes a number of Christian-related books and hosts several of Catholic and Christian conferences and seminars.

Georgetown currently has partnerships with China’s Central Party School and Fudan University in Shanghai. It also signed a cooperative agreement with Beijing’s Renmin University in 2004. The partnerships allow for strengthened cooperation in research and academia.

University spokesperson Julie Bataille said Georgetown is focusing on promoting interreligious dialogue at Georgetown. “China is one more example of a location where we are exploring a range of opportunities to do so,” she said.

Cho said that although both Georgetown and Chinese institutions have been open to encouraging diversity, the differences between their religious traditions may become a problem as they continue to work together.

“As China internationalizes . its scholars . will be open to more diverse approaches,” Cho said. “[This] could potentially cause problems between scholars and their government.”

“This is obviously a question that is potentially sensitive [and] will require great diplomacy on our part,” Cho said. “Religion is something that [the government thinks it] should be suspicious of.”

But Samuel Robfogel, the university’s director of international initiatives, said that Georgetown’s Jesuit identity may serve as an asset as it continues to work with China.

“The way in which I describe Georgetown no matter where I am in the world is the same. We are the university founded in 1789, the oldest Catholic and Jesuit university in the States,” Robfogel said. “I have yet to encounter any tension between [our Jesuit identity] and our programs. I think in some cases, being open and forthright about our origins and history . makes us an easier partner.”

McNamara also said that Georgetown could use religious differences to its advantage.

“As for the mission and identity of [Georgetown] in a country where the state carefully monitors religious activity, we have the benefit of experience elsewhere,” McNamara said. “Georgetown students and faculty have long found ways to work productively in other socialist societies, in non-Christian societies, and in societies where states severely constrain religious activities.”

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