Church-State Tensions in Philippines and China

Tension is raging on between the Christian Church (Catholic and Protestant) and the Governments of China and Philippines regarding opposing views on public policy and religious freedom. Back in my home country, in the Philippines, the government is on a heated confrontation between the Catholic Church in the Philippines over the Reproductive Health (RH) Bill. On the other hand, here in China, the government vexed once more the Catholic Church in Vatican after reiterating that China has its own Catholic Church independent of the Vatican. Side-by-side with having an uneasy relations with the Vatican, China has also stepped-up its restriction on Christian Church affairs particularly those of unregistered Protestant denominations and house churches.


Church-State Tension in Philippines

The Catholic Church, the most dominant and influential Christian Church in the Philippines, represented by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) vehemently opposes the legislation of the RH Bill citing moral, political, and economic reasons. Morally, CBCP says that the RH Bill, which promotes the use of artificial contraceptives, is anti-life and immoral and would promote sexual promiscuity. Economically, CBCP argues that population growth is not the reason for poverty in the Philippines and that there is little evidence that population growth impedes economic development citing individual eminent economists study. Politically, CBCP insisted that it would be politically wise for the government to fund anti-poverty initiatives such as mass housing than to fund the purchase of artificial contraceptive to be given to the poor.

Countering the claims of the Catholic Church, Cong. Edcel Lagman, chief proponent of RH Bill said that the reasons given by the CBCP is a misreading and misinformation of the bill. He argued that the bill is not immoral and anti-life. The lawmaker said that the bill is pro-quality life. It will ensure that children will be blessings for their parents since their births are planned and wanted and it will empower couples with the information, knowledge, and opportunity to plan and space their children. Countering the economic reasoning of the Catholic Church, the lawmaker said that the RH Bill to make it clear does not claim that it is the panacea for poverty. It simply recognizes the verifiable link between a huge population and poverty. Unbridled population growth stunts socioeconomic development and aggravates poverty. The connection between population and development is well-documented and empirically established as per UN Human Development Reports and Asian Development Bank Reports conclude about the Philippine situation. Finally, rebutting the political reasoning of CBCP, Cong. Lagman said that RH Bill is not just about distributing artificial contraceptives to the poor. It is much more than that. It’s also about information and access to both natural and modern family planning, promotion of maternal, infant and child health and nutrition, and breast feeding, prevention of abortion and management of post-abortion complications, adolescent and youth health education, prevention and management of reproductive tract infections, HIV/AIDS and STDs, elimination of violence against women, and counselling on sexuality and sexual and reproductive health.

With the latest national survey showing that majority of Filipinos and many Filipino legislators are in favor for the passage into law of the RH Bill, it looks like the Catholic Church would lose on this battle. But not without giving a big fight. A few weeks ago, several church leaders have threatened to excommunicate President Noynoy Aquino (who appears to be supportive of the bill. The Church has also called its faithful to launch civil disobedience and non-payment of taxes. Catholic schools have also told their teachers and professors to resign if they ever dare to visibly and actively support the bill. These actions of the Catholic Church are in addition to its strong lobbying in the Philippine Congress for the non-passage into law of the RH Bill.

Well, let’s see then where this national debate on the RH Bill would lead into. But as for me, Filipinos and its leaders would have to make a tough decision and stick to what they think is good for the majority of Filipinos, regardless of intense pressure. We cannot dilly-dally on making a brighter future for the 92 million Filipinos majority of which are young people living in frustrating poverty.


Church-State Tension in China

Just as there is an uneasy tension between the Church and the State in the Philippines, the same thing goes here in China. But unlike the Philippine government which is having an uneasy relation lately with the Catholic Church, the Chinese government is facing tension with both the Catholic Church and the Protestant Church.

A few weeks ago, the Chinese government vexed the Catholic Church’s high officials in Vatican after the pope-appointed bishop of Shantou, 81-year-old Zhuang Jianjian has been put under house arrest since Holy Week. Members and leaders of the Catholic Church in China (officially called Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association) is united in major doctrine with the Catholic Church but  disunited with the Catholic Church hierarchy in Vatican, has instead elected its own bishop Huang Bingzhang, a bishop who happens to be also a member of the National Congress.

Vatican and Beijing have uneasy relations since the Communist Party overtook China in 1949. During the Mao era, foreign Christian missionaries (both Catholics and Protestants) were banished from China after being proven and suspected of being imperialists, colonialists, and economic saboteurs. Thus, during that time the Communist government forbid the missionary and organizing works of foreign Christians but has instead encouraged Chinese to handle their religious work themselves without the influence of foreigners. This of course was done with government restrictions. Only those churches registered with the government and belonging to the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (Catholics) and Three-Self Patriotic Movement, China Christian Council are allowed to organize, to do missionary works, and other church-related activities. This set-up of excluding foreign influence and interference on the affairs of Christian Church (Catholic and Protestant) in China has remained the same since it was formally organized in the 1950’s.

There have been efforts to reconcile the Catholic Church in China with the global Catholic Church leadership in Vatican. However, the Chinese government has continuously hampered it citing the role Vatican has played in toppling governments particularly the role the late Pope John Paul II has played in influencing the downfall of Communist governments in Poland and other Eastern European countries. The Chinese government has also questioned the integrity of the Vatican following the beatification of 120 Chinese and foreign martyrs who according to the Chinese government had perpetrated crimes and abuses to the Chinese people.

Last Holy Week, numerous uniformed and plainclothes Chinese police officers arrested  hundreds of Shouwang Church members and leaders after caught worshipping in a public square. Members of Shouwang Church, who are mostly young urban professionals, were forced to worship in public after the landlord of its rented worship hall gave in to government pressure to terminate the church’s lease. Hundreds of the church members were detained, from a few hours to 48 hours and key church leaders have been placed under house arrest.  Some church members have lost their jobs or rented homes. Several others have experienced harassment and intimidation. The government was reported to have repeatedly refused to give Shouwang Church accreditation to become official members of the Protestant Church in China because of its perceived strong connection to Western-based Protestant churches.

In an unprecedented move of courage and solidarity for the Shouwang Church, numerous other underground church leaders issued a petition to the National People’s Congress of China, calling for an end to persecution of the Shouwang Church and its 1,000 members who have been denied access to their worship space. The petition made three demands: to investigate the reasons for Shouwang being denied access to its space and to press the Beijing government to resolve the situation; to determine whether regulations are in compliance with the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion; and to pass a law “for the Protection of the Liberty of Religious Faith.”


The petition, drafted by senior underground church leaders Xie Moshan and Li Tianen and signed by 17 church leaders from six cities, was a strong indication of nationwide support for Shouwang Church’s plight. “With the incessant growth of the number of urban Christians and the continued expansion of the church, the conflict between state and church of this sort is likely to continue to break out,” the petition said.

With China’s rapid economic growth there is also rapid changes in its society including the phenomena in which the church has becoming a refuge of relief and comfort for the estimated 100 million Chinese Christians, both Catholics and Protestants, both registered and non-registered. The sooner the Chinese government can fully realize the positive role the church has been doing to its citizens and to its society, the sooner it can realize its state goal of a harmonious society. It would do well for the Chinese government to heed the conclusion of the study of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences that Christianity and its good Christian work ethics contributed remarkably to its economic success and encouragement of such work ethic derived from freely allowing the practice of the Christian faith would be very beneficial and advantageous for China in the long run. For the meantime, Chinese Christians, especially those who prefer to go to unregistered churches would have to endure inconveniences and interruptions on their worship/mass services.


J. Sun E.

Sun, a Filipino based in China, writes PH.CN on ProPinoy, a weekly column on Philippines-China relations, politics, history, and current events. He studied Political Science, History, and Foreign Languages in Philippines and China. Follow him on Twitter @phdotcn

  • winne

    good article!