ucanews.com reporter, BeijingUpdated: April 07, 2016 11:11 AM GMT
This file image shows a man holding a certificate of baptism after he was baptized during a Christmas Eve service held by members of an underground church, at an apartment in Beijing. The communist authorities have recently been ramping up its persecution of house churches, says a leading rights campaigner. (Photo by AFP)
China's highest court has reported a huge reduction in state security trials, those that typically apply to political and religious detainees but evidence of a significant rise in cases involving "cults" and "terrorists" suggests persecution of underground churches and Uighur Muslims may be worsening.
China's Supreme Court announced data in its latest work report suggesting Endangering State Security cases fell 44 percent last year, according to analysis by the U.S.-based China advocacy group the Dui Hua Foundation.
In Xinjiang — home to 12 million minority Muslim Uighurs where most Endangering State Security trials are reported — this trend was reflected as state security cases fell to one-third of the level in 2014, the highest on record.
But in the same region, "cult" cases grew over 35 percent and terrorist offences over 25 percent last year, according to data by the Xinjiang High People's Court.
"Dui Hua believes that many of the trials for cult and terrorism crimes had previously been handled as Endangering State Security trials," the foundation said.
Chinese authorities stepped up a drive to tackle minority Christian sects after members of the Church of Almighty God reportedly killed a woman in a McDonalds in Shandong province in May 2014. Zhang Lidong and his daughter Zheng Fen were executed for the killing February last year.
China has since considered raising the maximum prison term for cult activity from 15 years to life, and earlier this year banned retired party cadres from religious activity while requiring they "resolutely fight against cults."
Critics of Beijing say manipulation of anti-cult sentiment has fueled use of the term to attack legitimate Christian groups, particularly house churches —underground Protestant places of worship not recognized by the state.
Five members of Daguan House Church in Guizhou province face prosecution for "using a cult organization to undermine law enforcement." Authorities in Henan province detained five house church leaders during a bible-training session in November.
"Unfortunately, the persecution of the house church continues to worsen. The Chinese government continually cites 'attacking cults' as a pretext to launch large-scale persecution campaigns against house churches," Bob Fu, director of founder of Christian rights groups China Aid, told a U.S. Congressional hearing in July.
Although there are no death penalty figures in China — the data remains a state secret — reports point to a spate of executions of Uighurs following attacks blamed on the Muslim group in recent years. Up to 40 Uighurs were sentenced to death during the first five months of a 'strike hard' campaign by the government in late May, 2014, according to state media.
China has reduced the number of categories that incur the death penalty, and estimates by Dui Hua suggest the number of people executed in China has come down — from around 12,000 people in 2002 the current figure is now believed to be around 2,000 each year.
But China is still by far the biggest executor in the world noted William Nee, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Amnesty International, which released its annual report on capital punishment on April 6.
"The progress is still very slow — very gradual — and ironically there may be a perception that this is one human rights issue in China that is on the right track," Nee told ucanews.com. "So the pressure has come off to some extent."