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The Dangerous Work of Defending Religious Freedom in China

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People attend an Easter Vigil service at a Catholic church in Shanghai, China, April 3, 2021. (Aly Song/Reuters) Freedom of religion or belief is not just a concept. It’s about people — real individuals who fight for their rights.

‘This country is launching a war against the soul . . . In Xinjiang, in Tibet, in Shanghai, in Beijing, in Chengdu, the rulers of this country are launching this war . . .”

These are the words of Chinese pastor Wang Yi, leader of Early Rain Church, shortly before he was detained and later sentenced to nine years in prison for “inciting to subvert state power” and “illegal business operations.”

In reality, Pastor Wang was only “guilty” of criticizing the government’s oppression of religious communities. Images of this “war against the soul” have since become commonplace: churches stripped of their crosses or demolished completely; Uyghur families torn apart and thrown into “re-education” camps; the grieving families of Tibetan Buddhists who have died in prison, their bodies bearing signs of torture.

There are many victims in this war, but also many soldiers: those who risk their own safety to stand up for the rights of others.

This includes the hundreds of human-rights lawyers working tirelessly across the country despite grave risks. Pastor Wang Yi himself was a lawyer before he was a pastor. Human-rights lawyers in China have long been harassed, threatened, and worse in retaliation for their work defending the most vulnerable in society, who include victims of discrimination, corruption and landgrabs, the forcibly evicted, and religious minorities. These lawyers pay a price for their work that is difficult for many of us in the United States to even imagine.

If you were one of these lawyers, the trouble may start when you first take on a “sensitive” case, perhaps that of a Falun Gong practitioner or a house-church Christian. First, your boss might receive a call from a higher-up, asking them to pressure you to drop the case. Then an agent, not a uniformed officer from the local police station, but

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