Major Christian religious associations in China proposed an initiative to have officially-recognised churches raise the national flag as a symbol in recognition and respect of national sovereignty and unity. The protocol, announced on the 31 July, will apply to all official religious venues.
Churches in Western countries have a centuries-long tradition of flying a national flag but, some Western media reports have interpreted calls for churches to do so in China as evidence of an attempt by the Chinese government to force “ideological control over religious life”.
In the US particularly, the constitutionally-protected flag is held in immense respect and seen as the consolidating emblem of civic life. The “Stars and Stripes” is typically raised outside church buildings. In the UK, there is no official directive for flags outside churches, but traditionally a Union Jack is raised by some on state occasions and many raise national flags throughout the year.
For most Western countries, where laws and constitutions protect religious liberty, there seems to be no apparent conflict between religious freedom and displaying national flags in church contexts. In fact, for Christians, respecting and obedience to civil authorities are Biblical imperatives (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-14).
The Chinese Communist government does not restrict adult Christian worship or officially-sanctioned Bible distribution at state-registered churches. However, unregistered “house churches”, which are growing more numerous especially in Beijing, meet illegally. Christians of un-registered churches in the capital recently said they were not “dissenting” and voiced desires to improve relations with government officials.
Christians in China are subjected to limitations on practicing their faith. Underground Christians attending un-registered meetings face typically localised and sporadic persecution by authorities including building closure, surveillance and detention. Children are not permitted in churches in China and some provinces forbid exposing children to religion. Actions against unregistered congregations appear to have intensified since new religion regulations came into effect across China on 1 February 2018.
In nominally-atheist China the phenomenal growth of Christianity, essentially viewed as a “foreign” religion, is unnerving to the state. This is, perhaps, understandable given the numbers of Christians, estimated at around 100 million, now exceed that of the membership of the ruling Communist party
Recent policy appears to be attempting to balance tolerance with a degree of regulation and control, with regional interpretation seeming to vary on how strictly regulations should be enforced. Managing the coexistence of atheist communism and Marx’s so-called “opiate” of religion is a challenging paradox for a government trying to conserve its grip on internal unity and harmony across a vast and complex population.