A conference in Milan’s Town Hall highlights religious persecution in China and the problems encountered by refugees.
by Massimo Introvigne
Few places are more symbolic of Milan than the Sala Alessi, in the heart of the city’s Town Hall, Palazzo Marino. The magnificent 16th century room is a feast of sculptures of frescos on Greek mythology. The ceiling is dominated by a fresco by the brothers Andrea (1525–1594) and Ottavio Semini (1530–1604). It represents the story of Eros and Psyche, which for two thousand years has been a main Western metaphor for the universal moral and spiritual teaching about the need of confronting the world’s problems with both reason and love.
The old metaphor was still relevant for a fully booked conference held in the beautiful Salone on October 26, co-organized by the Union of African Communities in Italy, Bitter Winter, and the latter’s parent organization, CESNUR, the Center for Studies on New Religions. After two sessions on Italian laws on refugees and African asylum seekers in Italy, the third part of the conference was devoted to China.
The session opened with Bitter Winter’s movie Tiananmen and Religious Persecution in China. Marco Respinti, director-in-charge of Bitter Winter, offered an outline of religious persecution in China, using sociologist Yang Fenggang’s scheme of a red, a gray, and a black market. All religions are persecuted in China, Respinti said, but not all are persecuted equally. Groups banned as xie jiao, part of what Yang calls the black market, such as Falun Gong and The Church of Almighty God, are persecuted more mercilessly.
I presented an outline of the history, theology, and persecution of The Church of Almighty God and its refugees in Italy, and a member of the same Church offered a moving testimony about being arrested and tortured in China—and denied asylum in Italy by an administrative commission (he has now appealed the decision before a civil court).
The conference was a great opportunity putting together scholars, refugees, lawyers, and some of the very judges who (in Milan more often than elsewhere in Italy) often render negative decisions denying asylum to Chinese refugees, most of them members of The Church of Almighty God.
They clarified that they have no doubts that The Church of Almighty God is severely persecuted in China. The problem is to be persuaded that the individual refugee is really a member of that Church, and will be persecuted if compelled to return to China. The need emerged for judges, lawyers, and administrative authorities to further deepen their knowledge of The Church of Almighty God—something Italian authorities are laudably trying to do by producing national guidelines and documents, although not all local administrative boards use them. Refugees themselves should understand what parts of their stories are relevant for the boards and the courts, and should explain why they converted and decided to join a persecuted movement, while knowing how dangerous this may be in China.
A crucial question, highlighted in several speeches, concern the passports. If members of The Church of Almighty God and other banned groups are persecuted, why do they manage to get a passport? Sometimes, authorities in democratic countries rely on information over-emphasizing the effectiveness of the Chinese surveillance machine. It is powerful indeed, but it has bugs those willing to escape may learn to exploit. And one should never forget the record figures of corruption in China.
Millions of cases of corruption are reported every year. Police officers are corrupted to clean the criminal records of those who had been arrested. They are also corrupted to deliver passports they theoretically should not deliver, and to make it easier to pass controls at the borders. One problem is that refugees may be reluctant to disclose that they or their relatives were helped by corrupted officers, although of course they only did it because they desperately needed to escape.
I asked the authorities in the room to have a look at the local police chronicles in Tuscany, an Italian region where bosses of Chinese organized crime are often located and arrested. It comes out they all had entered Italy with regular passports, despite the fact that they were wanted for serious crimes. Obviously, I was not comparing law-abiding religion-based refugees to criminals. But, if even criminals may obtain a passport and come to Italy, the whole question of passports obviously deserves a second look.
At the end of the conference, the Love and Psyche fresco was still looking at the audience from the ceiling. Reason is important, but love is also important when taking decision concerning, literally, the life and death of refugees. If sent back to China, they will be arrested, tortured, perhaps killed, as many real and documented stories unfortunately testify. Individual stories should always be verified, but in these difficult days compassion may just be another name for justice.