Wenzhou, China (CNN) - At a gray church on the outskirts of Wenzhou in eastern China, Christians from across the county keep a nervous watch.
Some stand behind the iron gate; others sit just inside the church door. For more than two months they've waited, preparing themselves to protect the cross on top of their church.
"If I have to, I am going to hold it in my arms and protect it," one elderly man says. "They have no right to tear it down, that is why we have to defend our church."
Wenzhou is known as the "Jerusalem of China" and throughout this year the local Communist Party authorities have demolished scores of churches and forcibly removed more than 300 church crosses.
Chinese church leaders say it's the worst anti-Christian crackdown in decades.
"What the government here is doing is so barbaric, they're like bandits and we are furious with them," says Chen Zhi'ai, a respected church leader in the Wenzhou area. "Today we've seen the fundamental symbol of our faith violated and it hurts us deep inside our hearts."
Opinion by William McKenzie, Special to CNN
(CNN) - Early on the morning of November 28, 2007, Jia Weihan was forced to think the unthinkable: Was her father really a bad man?
At the time, she was an 11-year-old attending a school in Beijing that taught her to respect the communist authorities. When 30 or so police officers arrived to arrest her father, she did not know what to think.
As it turned out, her father, Shi Weihan, the pastor of a house church, was simply trying to live out his religious beliefs. That should be a fundamental right, but in China - even the more economically liberalized China – it’s not.
Twenty-five years after Tiananmen Square - where on June 4, 1989, Chinese soldiers turned their guns on protesting students and activists - freedom remains elusive.
In China, Tibetan Buddhists and Uyghur Muslims face worse conditions than at any time over the past decade, according to a report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
The report warns that independent Protestants and Catholics face arrests, fines and the closing of their churches. The government recently bulldozed one large church in the city of Wenzhou.
The report also highlights other restrictions, including these problems:
"Practitioners of Falun Gong, as well as other Buddhist, folk religionist, and Protestant groups deemed 'superstitious' or 'evil cults' face long jail terms, forced denunciations of faith and torture in detention, and the government has not sufficiently answered accusations of psychiatric experimentation and organ harvesting."
In Shi's case, he had decided not to tell Jia and her 7-year-old sister, Enmei, that he was printing Bibles and Christian literature. That was against Chinese law, so he did not want to put his children in jeopardy by letting them in on the secret.
Their children soon came to understand the secret, in a life-altering way.
By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Editor
(CNN) - Since 1999, the U.S. State Department has tracked the world's worst abusers of religious rights.
As the most recent report notes, it has never lacked for material. Persecutions of people of faith are rising across the globe.
Among the most worrying trends, according to the State Department, are "authoritarian governments that restrict their citizens’ ability to practice their religion."
In typically bland bureaucratic language, the State Department calls these "countries of particular concern." But the designation can come with some teeth.
Sudan, for example, where a Christian woman was sentenced to death this week for leaving Islam, is ineligible for some types of foreign aid.
In addition to Sudan, here are the State Department's "countries of particular concern." You might call them "The Worst Places in the World to Be Religious."
West Hills, California (CNN) - A Los Angeles Christian church and school that had planned two host two Chinese students who died in Saturday's Asiana 214 crash in San Francisco grieved at a worship service on Sunday.
West Valley Christian School says 35 Chinese students on the Asiana flight were scheduled to live with church families and join its youth summer camp, where they would learn about American culture and improve English fluency.
"We want to grieve. We want to be real and we want love these families that have lost their loved ones,” Derek Swales, a school administrator, told KCAL, a CNN affiliate.
By CNN Staff
(CNN) - A court in southwestern China has given heavy sentences to two ethnic Tibetans convicted of murder for "inciting" people to set themselves of fire, state media reported Thursday.
Self-immolation has become a dramatic and harrowing form of protest in recent years for ethnic Tibetans unhappy with Chinese rule.
Beijing has taken a tough line on the protesters and their associates, accusing the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, of fomenting unrest inside Chinese borders.
Editor's note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.
By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN
(CNN) –China Daily, an English-language newspaper and a mouthpiece of the Chinese government, last week published an article called “Western Voices Question Tibetan Self-Immolation Acts.”
The first of the voices quoted was mine—for a Belief Blog piece I wrote last summer criticizing the Dalai Lama for averting his gaze from the spate of self-immolations protesting Chinese rule in Tibet. "If the Dalai Lama were to speak out unequivocally against these deaths, they would surely stop. So in a very real sense, their blood is on his hands," I wrote in a passage quoted in the Chinese Daily piece.
In my post, I wrote of an “epidemic of self-immolations,” noting that from mid-March to mid-July 2011 more than 40 Tibetans had set themselves on fire to protest the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Since then, the pace of these protests has accelerated. According to the International Campaign for Tibet, 94 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since March 2011, and the pace in November was nearly one a day.
Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.
When the Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc immolated himself in Saigon in 1963 to protest the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government of Ngo Dinh Diem, the world took notice. Malcolm Browne’s photograph of the monk becoming a martyr won the Pulitzer Prize, and Diem's Roman Catholic regime fell before the year’s end.
Today, Tibet is witnessing an epidemic of self-immolations. In fact, since March 16, 2011, more than 40 Tibetans have followed Thich Quang Duc’s lead, setting themselves on fire to protest the Chinese occupation of Tibet.
Westerners react with revulsion to sati, the Hindu practice of widow-burning outlawed by the British in 1829, and of course to Islamist suicide bombers. The New Atheists are right to protest all this killing in the name of God (or the Buddha) – the way believers both prompt violence and justify it in the name of some higher good.
So where are the protests against these Tibetan protesters?
By Richard Allen Greene, CNN
The Vatican stepped up its battle with the Chinese Catholic Church this weekend, excommunicating a bishop who was ordained during the week without the pope's permission.
Pope Benedict XVI "deplored" the "illicit" ordination of the Rev. Joseph Huang Bingzhang and expelled him from the church because he was "ordained without papal mandate," the Vatican said Saturday.
He was the second bishop ordained by Chinese Catholics without Vatican permission in the past month, and at least the third in the past year, as Beijing and Rome struggle over control of the Catholic Church in China.
Huang Bingzhang was ordained as Bishop of the Diocese of Shantou in southeast China on Thursday, the Vatican said, although Rome had asked him "on numerous occasions not to accept episcopal ordination."
Thousands gathered Saturday on the National Mall to hear the Tibetan spiritual leader talk about world peace.
By Gabe LaMonica, CNN
WASHINGTON (CNN) - Meeting with top U.S. lawmakers a day after his 76th birthday, the Dalai Lama cited the principle of church-state separation in his recent decision to step down as the political head of an exiled movement.
"The religious institution, the leader of the religious, and the political leadership, should be separate," he told the legislators during an appearance Thursday in the Capitol. "I myself combine! So my statement, my explanation, become like hypocrisy. Saying something, doing something different."
"Religious institutions, political institutions, must be separate - the last several decades I emphasized that," he said.
The bipartisan group of legislators temporarily put aside their politically charged negotiations over reducing the U.S. debt - some of which is owed to China - to show their admiration and affection for the man regarded by the Chinese government as the leader of a separatist movement.
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.