From the Winter 2011/2012 Faith issue
Faith is all too often perceived as a personal matter of the individual and his or her relationship with God. But increasingly, faith has become a battleground. Beyond the routine competition between Christian and Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist, Taoist and Communist, there are many locations where two powers—religious and secular—come into direct conflict, and vast gulfs open up.
World Policy Journal has set out to chronicle such fault lines of faith, examine their origins and the forces that continue to drive wedges between communities. We’ve settled on three locations—Venezuela, where Jews and the state are increasingly in conflict; China, where the state is nervously clamping down on underground churches; and Turkey, where the ancient Byzantine empire of Orthodox Christians confronts daily challenges from the Islamic nation that surrounds them. We’ve asked writers in each of these nations to define the fault lines and help us understand the dynamics at work.
Venezuela: Another Jewish Exodus
By Carla Candia
CARACAS—Monday morning starts like any other. Traffic is still light through Avenida Principal de Los Chorros, the main avenue in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in east Caracas. At 6:30 a.m., security guards at Centro Social, Cultural y Deportivo Hebraica—a Venezuelan Jewish school and community center—are preparing to receive 1,500 students and their parents.
Suddenly, a dozen investigative police vehicles surround the building.
Some 25 armed officers storm the community center, searching for guns and explosives. It’s still early, so there are no children in the school—just a few adults, mostly workers and people exercising. Classes and regular activities are immediately suspended, and cars that try to enter now are being stopped, causing a traffic jam along Avenida Principal and alarming parents, students, and neighbors.
“At 7:20 a.m. officers check the elevator shafts and go up to the roof. At 7:45 a.m. they look inside the electricity room, and the swimming pool pump station. At 8:15 they check the main warehouse,” writes Anabella Jarolasky, executive director of the center, in a detailed record. Around 9 a.m., police officers leave without finding any weapons. Government officials say the raid was ordered in relation to the assassination of state attorney Danilo Anderson, killed in a car explosion. According to a lawyer of the Hebraica, a proceeding against the school was opened and never closed. This was seven years ago, and it marked the turning point for the Venezuelan Jewish community.
SEVEN YEARS GO BY
Today, sitting beside the club’s Olympic-size swimming pool, Salomon Cohen, president of Confederación de Asociaciones Israelitas de Venezuela (CAIV), the Jewish community’s central organization, remembers the raid on November 29, 2004, as “a direct attack on Venezuela’s Jewish community. They wanted to let us know who is in charge,” Cohen says.
Since then, the community has received several more threats. On a Saturday evening in December 2007, there was a second raid at Hebraica. After Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip in January 2009, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez expelled the Israeli Ambassador as an expression of what government officials termed “solidarity with the heroic people of Palestine.” Later that month, on Shabbat, about 15 unidentified men attacked the Sephardic Tiferet Israel Synagogue, in northeast Caracas. They scrawled anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli messages on the walls, ransacked offices, and desecrated Torahs. Eleven of the attackers were later arrested, and eight were found to be police officers. A month later, a group of unidentified people threw a homemade explosive into a Jewish community center in a nearby middle-class neighborhood.
These attacks and Chávez’s anti-Israeli rhetoric, along with rising crime and a lack of opportunities for young people, have spurred a mass exodus. There are no official statistics, but in the past 12 years, more than half the city’s Jews have fled, according to estimates by Jewish community leaders. Today, community members say there are between 9,500 and 14,000 Jews in Venezuela, down from around 22,000 when Cháveztook power in 1999. Those who remain are mostly lower- and middle-class families who don’t have the resources to leave. Together with a few wealthy businessmen, they struggle to keep the community vibrant as their numbers dwindle.
In the Unión Israelita de Caracas, one of the main institutions of Venezuela’s Jewish Community, there is a small room with a sign on the door that reads, “Centro de Recopilación de Publicaciones Comunitarias” (Community Publications Compilation Center). Inside, five people monitor anti-Semitic and anti-Israel messages by the Chávezgovernment in the media. The office was created in 2006 as a reaction to the growing anti-Semitic rhetoric, explains Sammy Eppel, a political columnist who is working to raise awareness of the situation of Jews in Venezuela. “Now we have to be more alert,” he says.
Mario Silva, host of “La Hojilla” (The Razorblade), a late-night political talk show broadcast on state television, has repeatedly accused members of the Jewish community of participating in the failed coup against Chávez in April 2002. Earlier this year, Cristina González, a journalist who works for various state-owned media organizations, went on the government-run Radio Nacional de Venezuela to defend the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a viciously anti-Semitic text, written in Russia in 1903 and used by the Nazis to justify the extermination of Jews. Members of the Jewish community say this is the first time in Venezuelan history that a regime has embraced anti-Israel rhetoric and spread anti-Semitic messages through the media.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
A small group of Jews is believed to have arrived in Venezuela from Curaçao in the 17th century, but it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that larger groups established themselves in the country. With the arrival of immigrants from Eastern Europe and North Africa in the 1920s, the community started to grow. In 1939, two ships from Germany arrived at the seaside cities of Puerto Cabello and La Guaira after being denied entry into other countries. During the 1940s and 1950s, Venezuela was also a destination for Jews who fled the Holocaust and others who migrated from Arab countries. Most settled in Caracas, though another Jewish group established a community in northwestern Venezuela.
In the past, Eppel says that there had never been anti-Semitism in Venezuela. “Venezuelans are not anti-Semitic. They are very tolerant towards different races and religions. Here we have Santería [an Afro-Caribbean folk religion] followers and Opus Dei members living in harmony,” Eppel says, adding that what dominates the country now is political anti-Semitism, with the message that “a true revolutionary has to be anti-Zionist.” Though Chávez has publicly maintained that his government doesn’t tolerate anti-Semitism, over the years he has become a friend of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has denied the existence of the Holocaust.
In a letter sent in September to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Chávez expressed his support for the creation of the Palestinian state. He highlighted the difference between being anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist. “It is one thing to denounce anti-Semitism and an entirely different thing to passively accept that Zionistic barbarism enforces an apartheid regime against the Palestinian people. From an ethical standpoint, those who denounce the first, must condemn the second,” he wrote.
But Pynchas Brener, emeritus rabbi of Unión Israelita de Caracas, says Venezuelan Jews have such a strong emotional connection with Israel that they feel offended when Israel is attacked. “It doesn’t matter how hard the government tries to separate being anti-Israel from being anti-Semitic, it’s the same for Venezuelan Jews,” says Brener. “Venezuelan Jews don’t feel comfortable living in that atmosphere.”
To illustrate the impact of mass emigration in the community, Eppel, 67, takes me for a drive around San Bernardino, one of the first neighborhoods where Jews established themselves. Eppel grew up in the city of Maracaibo, in western Venezuela, but has lived in the capital since he first arrived here at the age of 30. First, we pass by a building that occupies a whole block and used to be Colegio Moral y Luces, the school where Jews from his generation studied. The building, he says, was sold six years ago, because there was more than enough room at Hebraica, the other school.
Not far away are Centro Médico Yolanda Katz, a community health center; the Bet-Am building, a Jewish information and culture center; and a home for the elderly. But these buildings, says Eppel, also could be sold in the near future. The community has shrunk and the existing infrastructure—designed to manage seven times the present volume of people—has begun to feel too large. “It makes me feel nostalgic. This used to be our life,” Eppel says, referring to all the institutions in San Bernardino. A second-generation Venezuelan Jew, Eppel has been hit by the effects of emigration. His five children all live in different cities around the world, in places as distant as Hong Kong and Luxembourg.
Thirty-year-old theater director Michel Hausmann says he experienced firsthand pressure because of his religion. For years Hausmann produced well-known musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar, The Producers, and Fiddler on the Roof. It was precisely when staging Fiddler, in 2009, that the accompanying national orchestra withdrew days before the premiere. “The director called us and said, ‘I want you to understand that I’m not anti-Jew or anti-Semitic, but we get 80 percent of our funds from the government, and we can’t risk that by participating in a Jewish play,’” Hausmann recalls. The orchestra director has denied ever saying those words. Hausmann eventually moved to New York. “Out of 120 people in my class at Hebraica, there must be barely 20 still living in Venezuela,” he says. The number of students at Hebraica reflects the magnitude of the emigration. Fifteen years ago there were 2,400 students enrolled in Hebraica. Now, there are 980.
“Jews who came from Cuba and others who survived the Holocaust left Venezuela, because they feared persecutions, restrictions, or any kind of government measures that could affect them,” says Abraham Levy, a former president of caiv.
Emigration has also hurt the community financially. While a few wealthy members remain and contribute, many upper-class Venezuelan Jews have resettled elsewhere and have stopped supporting schools and other local facilities. “Our institutions depend on the contributions of our members. When part of the community emigrates, our incomes decrease,” Levy says.
On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, at Unión Israelita, the extent of the community’s decline is clear. In the past, it was hard to find a seat in the main synagogue, which holds 1,500 people. Sometimes it was even necessary to set up an improvised synagogue in the ballroom for another 2,500. But now barely 400 people rise for the most important moment of the ceremony, the sounding of the Shofar, played to herald blessings for the New Year.
Eppel sits at the back of the room, watches, and sighs, “What we are seeing here is the decline of our Jewish community.”
Carla Candia is a Venezuelan-American journalist based in Caracas.
Turkey: Byzantine Reflections
By John Chryssavgis
ISTANBUL—Christians in Istanbul—much like members of other religious communities, including their Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters—are privileged to live in a colorful city that served as the capital of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire for over 1,000 years and of the Ottoman Empire for almost half a millennium. This historical and imperial city has been variously designated through the ages as Byzantium, Constantinople, New Rome, Royal City, and Istanbul. Its geographically strategic position—straddling two continents, Europe and Asia, bridging the Black and Mediterranean seas—was successively desired and plundered. This rich antiquity is as instantly apparent as similar legacies in such great capitals as Rome and London.
Here, literary works of classical civilization and Roman law were preserved for the Western Renaissance. Plato and Aristotle would have remained inaccessible today without Arabic translations from Istanbul. In the sixth century, Justinian I pioneered the reform and codification of Latin jurisprudence, while two centuries later, Leo III influenced Slavic legal institutions. It was the Byzantine East that Christianized the Slavic north and protected the European south from invasions by the Goths and Visigoths. And the silent presence of Byzantium is still more far-reaching. From the forks we use to the hospitals we depend on to the academic universities where we pursue knowledge, the legacy of Byzantium has proved a lasting and profound influence. Byzantium was the longest, most successful experiment in church-state relations, lasting from 325 to 1453, while Byzantine laws first forbade the use of torture in legal proceedings.
In parallel with Rome, the other seat of a major Western religion, Istanbul sprawls across seven hills and is famous for its striking cultural monuments and heritage, its religious character and diversity, art and imperial ceremonies, education and literature, music and folklore, culinary and natural charm. With roots in the Byzantine civilization, Istanbul sits directly astride one of the great fault lines of faith in today’s world—the confluence of Islam and Orthodox Christianity. Today, this ancient city, with a population in excess of 13 million, is undergoing extraordinary growth and transformation into a modern, multi-ethnic metropolis.
Yet, this city is also the blood-stained cradle of the Phanar (Greek for “lighthouse,” referring to the old lighthouse quarter of Istanbul)—
a term also used to designate the headquarters of the Orthodox Church, since the residence and offices of the Ecumenical Patriarch are located there. This city is home to innumerable sites of Orthodoxy—the fourth-century walls of Constantine (surviving ramparts of a magnificent civilization), the Church of St. Irene (where the Christian Creed was formulated), the sixth-century Church of Hagia Sophia (an architectural wonder with structural elements emulated in the Blue Mosque), the Studion Monastery (where religious life was reformed), the vivid frescoes and unique iconography of the 14th-century Chora Monastery, among a host of other treasures of Orthodoxy.
Indeed, for the Rum Orthodox—a title used for centuries to describe Greek Christians living in Muslim states—Istanbul holds unique significance. Beyond the reality that they are natives and not immigrants, for 2,000 years this city has been the foremost seat of Orthodox Christianity and the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Today, this global eminence is Bartholomew I—with the bright eyes of the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara as well as the rejuvenated skin tone of the island of Imvros, his Turkish birthplace. The present Ecumenical Patriarch is the 270th holder of that title, following an extraordinary line of churchmen, who strove to preserve their ancient office, under often dire circumstances.
It is fair to say that, when Patriarch Bartholomew was elevated in 1991, the future for the patriarchate in Turkey looked precarious, if not bleak. Upon his election, he inherited a position that promised more ignominy than influence, more “crucifixion” than “resurrection,” as he has put it. The movements of his predecessor, Dimitrios, had been severely circumscribed by the Turkish authorities, and there was little reason to expect any quick improvement.
Over 17 centuries only nine patriarchs completed 20 years of continuous ministry on the throne. In the 17th century alone, there were 52 separate enthronements (of 28 patriarchs). The main portal to the patriarchal compound has remained sealed since Easter Sunday, 1821, when Patriarch Gregory V was hung there at the Sultan’s decree, his body suspended in full regalia for three days. The road of the patriarchate was later named for the same Sultan.
Circumstances changed dramatically following the collapse of communism in the late 1980s. During Bartholomew’s tenure, the Church of Albania was reconstituted in 1991, the independent Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia recognized in 1998, and the autonomy of the Church of Estonia restored in 1999. The Ecumenical Patriarch has no pretensions to being a “universal bishop.” He claims no doctrinal infallibility, and his primacy lies not in power and prestige but in sacrifice and service to sister Orthodox Churches. As “first among equals,” he neither coerces nor compels; he simply coordinates and convenes.
But there is more to this community than unique churches and shrines. Islam surrounds the Orthodox enclave in Istanbul, leaving the Church an extremely nervous minority. In this context, the patriarchal court skillfully navigates a host of vital ecclesiastical and political issues, especially environmental protection. Bartholomew is the only global religious leader to put environmentalism at the center of his ministry. Moreover, based on Orthodox Christianity’s 550-year history of coexistence with Muslims, Bartholomew initiated a series of meetings with Muslim leaders throughout the Middle East, traveling to Libya, Syria, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Azerbaijan, Qatar, Kazakhstan, and Bahrain, creating more bridges between Christianity and Islam than any other Christian leader.
He believes that—beyond interfaith consultations and ecumenical dialogue—religious tolerance derives from the common air we breathe and the people with whom we associate, converse, and debate on a daily basis. For Bartholomew, in all corners of the planet, religion has always constituted—and must continue to constitute—the basis of civilization. Religion should not divide along fault lines but instead unite over human rights and social justice. Underlining the compatibility of Orthodoxy and religious freedom, he preaches that war in the name of religion is a crime against religion. “On this planet created by God for us all, there is room for all of us,” he said at St. Nicholas’ Greek Orthodox Church in New York City next to the ruins of the World Trade Center in March 2002. On official visits, his entourage invariably includes a Muslim associate.
In Istanbul, Orthodox Christians live alongside a host of other minorities, each with its own specific and turbulent history. Seasons of prosperity and fortune have frequently been succeeded by periods of decline and misfortune. Such circumstances have marked the shrinking of the Christian population, with an increasing shortage of clergy and closing of schools. While new institutions have appeared, many are far less active than when the Greek population flourished. At one time, Rum Christians comprised the commercial and financial ruling class. Today they constitute a tiny remnant.
In recent years, whether a tribute to its ambition for accession to the European Union or an effort to realize the democratic ideal pledged by Kemal Atatürk, the founder of its democracy, Turkey has forged new ground in creating an atmosphere of equal social and human rights. The clearest evidence of this spirit is the decline of government interference in clerical affairs and the restoration of rightful ownership of properties belonging to minorities, including the Greek community. This by no means implies a parallel decline in nationalism, racism, or even religious fanaticism—which Bartholomew’s predecessor, Patriarch Dimitrios, denounced as the worst form of intolerance and bigotry. Still, in a landmark ruling in November 2010, Turkish judges complied with the 2008 decision of the European Court of Human Rights to return the remarkable 19th-century wooden orphanage on the island of Büyükada to its rightful owner, the Ecumenical Patriarchate. It was the first time in decades that the Patriarchate’s legal status was acknowledged in Istanbul—though that was only after being compelled by a European-wide body.
Indeed, not all is positive. The patriarchate’s international Halki Theological School was forcibly closed in 1971, breaching the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 40 of the Treaty of Lausanne that ended World War I (“Turkish nationals belonging to non-Moslem minorities shall enjoy the same treatment and security in law and in fact as other Turkish nationals. In particular, they shall have an equal right to establish, manage and control at their own expense, any charitable, religious and social institutions, any schools and other establishments for instruction and education, with the right to use their own language and to exercise their own religion freely”). Formerly, Halki served as the foremost seminary of the Greek-speaking Orthodox world. It is Bartholomew’s dream and prayer to reopen this 19th-century institution. Furthermore, while Prime Minister Erdogan promises the return of more properties to minority groups, the street that runs past the Ecumenical Patriarchate was recently renamed after a controversial deceased Turkish politician from northern Greece. Turkish authorities continue to belittle Bartholomew by referring to him as a local religious leader. They stubbornly refuse to label him by his office as “Ecumenical Patriarch,” a phrase adopted in the sixth century to denote his wider pastoral and supra-national ministry within the federation of independent Orthodox Churches, which medieval historian Dimitri Obolensky referred to as the “Byzantine commonwealth.”
“Although he is the spiritual leader of 250 million Orthodox Christians, Bartholomew suffers constant harassment by a hostile Turkish government and persistent attacks by extremists,” says Professor John Silber, president emeritus of Boston University. “He has been cursed, spat upon, seen his office windows broken by rocks and even had live grenades thrown into his courtyard. He has often been jeered and threatened when venturing outside his walled enclave, his effigy periodically burned by Turkish chauvinists and Muslim fanatics.”
This abuse has neither daunted Bartholomew nor diminished his compassion and support for the Turkish people, and it has not changed his determination to serve as a mediator between Turkey and Europe. Frequently called a “bridge-builder,” he has supported international efforts to strengthen Turkey’s economy and democracy, often inviting severe criticism from Greek chauvinists. He is a fervent advocate of Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union, traveling throughout Europe to champion its admission.
Nonetheless, fault lines persist. During the celebration of the Feast of Epiphany, on January 6, 2011, with the traditional casting of the Cross into the waters of the Golden Horn, the call to prayer (adhan) by the local muezzin interrupted—all but drowning out, perhaps deliberately—the Byzantine chant of the Christian ceremony. Without a moment’s hesitation, the Patriarch calmly invited the congregation to wait until the Muslim prayer concluded, whereupon the Orthodox service continued.
Martyrdom is not merely exceptional, but in fact essential to the life of the Christian Church. Indeed, this tension between religion and state may be fueling creativity for the Orthodox Church in Turkey. For the function of the state, as Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev noted, is not to transform society into paradise but to prevent it from becoming hell. This is why there can be no other way than cooperation, solidarity, tolerance, love, peace, and justice. Religions are called to coexist harmoniously, reconciling the fault lines that appear to divide them.
Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, recently observed: “Bartholomew has turned the relative political weakness of his office into a strength.” Leaving Istanbul has never crossed his mind as the patriarchate has not left that city in 17 centuries, except briefly in the 13th century, when the Latins occupied the city and the patriarch took temporary refuge in Nicaea. In that respect, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has ensured that he won’t be the “last patriarch” in Turkey as some have predicted.
Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis studied in Athens and Oxford and taught at theological schools in Sydney and Boston. An ordained deacon of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, he serves as theological adviser to the Ecumenical Patriarch.
Christians in Communist China
By Brook Lee
BEIJING—It’s 5 o’clock on a clear, cold autumn morning in China’s capital, and Zupan is ready to leave his room. At this early hour on a Sunday, dozens of his classmates wait impatiently for him outside his dorm. Before he manages to leave his building, he receives a flood of text messages, causing his phone to beep with almost every step. “Please come downstairs, we are waiting for you,” reads one text from classmate Liu Xiang. Another asks, “Where are you? I beg you to come out … It’s so cold outside.”
This is Zupan’s Sunday morning routine. But the 25-year-old history student doesn’t welcome the attention, he just wants to worship with fellow members of the Shouwang Christian Church, one of the largest unregistered churches in Beijing. Each weekend, Zupan’s teachers and students, who have been specially selected among Communist Party members, wake up at the crack of dawn to keep him from practicing his new faith. With a legion of “fans” slowing him down by offering him breakfast at McDonald’s or trying to physically block him, he can barely run this gauntlet and make it to the metro station on time for services. The university worries about Zupan traveling to Shouwang because of a police crackdown there last April. Shouwang Church has become a symbol of religious freedom, and the school and the government pay less attention to his daily worship elsewhere.
Fearing tighter surveillance, Zupan refuses even to discuss the secret route he takes to church. His telephone has been wiretapped by the government.
A friendly offer for breakfast at McDonald’s or a casual conversation might seem like a rather benign form of religious persecution. But over the past year, Zupan has also been threatened with expulsion, physically removed from taxis and buses, and intimidated by the police. “All because I’m trying to go to church,” says the slight, bespectacled student.
Zupan’s journey from anonymity to campus celebrity began in 2008 when he converted to Christianity and joined the Shouwang Church, an evangelical church in Beijing, one of an increasing number of “house churches,” unregistered Christian gatherings often held in private homes. According to He Guanghu, a professor of religious studies at Renmin University, “after the Cultural Revolution, house churches flourished due to long, suppressed religious needs. The name ‘house church’ is mostly used to distinguish their illegal status from the Three Self Church, the state-controlled Protestant church.”
While China is the home of diverse and ancient religious traditions, decades of communist rule and the Cultural Revolution weakened the influence of traditional faiths such as Buddhism and Taoism, allowing Christianity to emerge for those seeking spiritual guidance. The government acknowledges 14 million Christians in China, but there are believed to be another 70 million who attend house churches, with more in the countryside than in cities like Beijing. Today, by some estimates, more people attend Sunday church services in China than in Europe. But it is by no means an easy path. Shouwang had held its main Sunday service at Laogushi restaurant, attracting as many as 400 worshippers. But in 2011, under political pressure, the restaurant canceled the contract.
A HIGHER POWER
Zupan’s personal epiphany came during his first year of university. “I was struggling to find a job and was under an enormous amount of pressure to meet my family’s expectations,” he says. Then, a teacher he especially admired gave him a Bible. Zupan, who had never contact with a Christian before, was initially skeptical. “But as I read the Bible and spoke to my teacher I started to hear my own inner voice,” he says. “And I found something more than materialism and studies. My mind was at peace. I felt God was watching over me.”
Zupan was baptized on Easter Sunday, April 11, 2009. Drawn to the support network and spirituality offered by Shouwang, he became an active member, leading believers at his school in prayer and preaching to other students. Indeed, the school was even prepared to offer him a room where he could worship if only he stayed on campus. It’s the spread of uncontrolled organized religions that sends more fear through the Communist Party hierarchy than the religious practices of a lone individual. His commitment to Shouwang Church drew the attention of government authorities wary of a source of motivation outside the oversight of the Party. China’s house churches have brought millions into the fold of groups that reject the power of the party in favor of a higher power.
The fault lines remain clearly drawn between a powerful, independent religion based on faith in a supreme being and a communist hierarchy that refuses to recognize any higher authority. “Though these social organizations may disagree with and even criticize the government, they are good for the country,” says He Guanghu, adding, “the Chinese government views the underground churches only from a political perspective, ignoring their cultural, moral, social, and historical functions. It’s not a modern way of governing.”
On April 10, 2011, as he made his way to Shouwang Church in Haidian District for Sunday prayers, Zupan and dozens of other church members were arrested and taken to a local police station. All those seized and interrogated had their identities recorded and were asked to stop participating in church-sponsored activities. Both police and university teachers questioned Zupan and told him that his actions amounted to an illegal demonstration.
“What you do is just like Tiananmen Square and the Jasmine Revolution. It’s dangerous. Stop attending Sunday services,” Zupan says his professors demanded. As a condition of his release, the police asked him to sign a guarantee stating he would no longer attend church services. Unlike other students detained during the April 10 crackdown, Zupan refused.
“Sunday services are part of the Christian faith, and this has nothing to do with the Jasmine Revolution. Your demand is illegal,” Zupan says he responded. Despite hours of questioning and a warning that his education and future job search would be seriously affected if he continued attending services, he refused to back down. Finally, after more than 10 hours at the station, he was allowed to leave without signing the guarantee. But his ordeal had only just begun.
From the moment he returned to campus, school authorities watched him closely. Because Zupan lives on campus, it’s more convenient for the school to watch him than for the government. It’s difficult to know who exactly asked the school authorities to try to stop him from attending services, but the Communist Party is almost certainly involved. Since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, nearly every Chinese public institution has had two systems. In universities, not only is there a president, but also a party secretary who represents the Communist Party. In Zupan’s case, it’s likely the government ordered the university’s party committee to dispatch teachers and students to derail Zupan’s Sunday schedule. Indeed, all those monitoring Zupan are party members, warning him that continued participation in religious activities would affect his future at the university.
When it became clear he had no intention of cooperating with school authorities, his ordeal only intensified. His head teacher and some 80 students, divided into groups, took turns supervising him. “They take me to McDonald’s to have breakfast and have designed classes only for me on Sunday morning. Sometimes they take me to government-sponsored church services,” Zupan says. With such a throng in tow, it’s difficult for him to escape. The tight surveillance has only increased his devotion to religion and his desire to escape. One Sunday, he managed to elude his sentries and slip away from the dormitory, only to have a classmate drag him out of a taxi and push him back toward campus. Zupan broke free and boarded a nearby bus, but the student followed him and reported his actions to school officials. “Your future and your file are all controlled by us,” a teacher warned him by cell phone.
Despite the intense harassment, Zupan refuses to give up his right to attend church services and continues to plot escapes from his minders. On Easter Sunday, he woke up at 4 a.m. and used a side entrance to slip out of campus unnoticed. But on reaching the area where his church was to hold worship services, he was detained by the police.
Zupan remains undaunted. “The Bible says those who attempt to thwart the faithful are themselves deceived and corrupted, and I have no fear when facing policemen, teachers, and any other higher authority. We are equal under God,” Zupan says. The young student continues to be actively involved in his church, leading prayer services for believers on campus.
And in the face of his persistence, school authorities have begun to yield. The university has offered Zupan a space to pray, allowing him to lead Sunday services on campus. But even in his prayer room he remains under scrutiny.
“They watch me whenever I enter the room,” says Zupan. “At first they were amazed I was actually praying, and they mocked me, but slowly I can see that a few teachers have begun to accept my genuine belief.” The university’s efforts to accommodate Zupan’s devotion have hardly curbed his desire for full freedom to practice his religion unhindered by interference and supervision. “I cooperated initially, but now I now see that the authorities refuse to take my faith seriously, and I know they will continue to try and stifle me.”
Zupan’s journey into the Christian faith not only brought him into conflict with the state but also put him at odds with his own family. A native of a small town in Guizhou Province and the town’s best student, Zupan was something of a local celebrity. The whole village took pride in his academic achievements and his admission to university in Beijing. But his conversion to Christianity drew ridicule and outright hostility from both his family and members of the local community.
When he returned home and refused to kowtow to ancestors during the spring festival, his parents were dismayed. “My father couldn’t believe I had become a Christian and said he would disown me if I became a priest,” he says. Zupan’s parents worried that his devotion would conflict with his studies. Zupan has dealt with his parents’ refusal to acknowledge his faith with his usual persistence. He engages them in discussions and devotes himself to domestic tasks like the care of his younger sister.
Seeing the extent of his resolve, his family eventually relented. “They are now prepared to tell neighbors that I am a Christian and have accepted that this isn’t a passing phase,” says Zupan, who adds that his proudest achievement is convincing his sister to join him in prayer. “I can share this strength with my family and remove the devil from their souls.”
Zupan feels he derives his strength and motivation from religion and from a power higher than any on earth. None of China’s traditional sources of authority—parents, school, or the government— have succeeded in turning him from his path. “I am not scared, because I know that what I am doing is right in the eyes of God,” Zupan says.
Recently, one of the teachers tasked with supervising him on weekends called and begged him to stop trying to attend weekend services. “She said she had to leave her children every weekend just to supervise me.” Zupan says. “I initially felt sorry for her, but then I realized this was just an attempt to manipulate me, and now I just want to show them their approach is wrong. ”
Zupan’s faith and the faith of millions of other young Christians pose a growing challenge to a government that refuses to acknowledge its peoples’ freedom to worship. Despite the government’s best attempts to dissuade him, every week Zupan leads services in the courtyard of a house. “Together with a dozen other believers, all graduates from Beijing Normal University, we sit under a large image of Jesus and study the Bible,” he says. After two hours of study, they begin to sing, and their evening always ends with the song “Missionary in China.”
“I carry on with my belief to wake up a sleeping China,” Zupan smiles. “I will never look back, though I may die. I will insist on going forward, till the day I can see missionaries in China, till the day I can see the gospel all over China.”
Brook Lee is a Beijing-based free-lance writer who has written widely on religion and social affairs in China.