About a decade ago, however, its practitioners began developing technology to circumvent the Communist government’s Internet restrictions, commonly known as the Great Firewall, a censorship and surveillance project operated by Beijing's Ministry of Public Security.
“The initial purpose was to [circulate] free information regarding Falun Gong,” said software engineer John Yu, recalling the early stages of the project, which developed into a series of software programs known as Dynaweb.
Operated from a secret location, Dynaweb now allows a multitude of users in China, Iran and other repressive countries to surf the web anonymously.
According to Yu, who is no longer involved in Dynaweb, Falun Gong viewed its development as a moral imperative in a world where so many commercial software firms sought only to avoid upsetting China’s censors.
“They don’t have the motive to do things like [circulate free information],” Yu said. “They do the opposite, and they make a lot of money.”
Falun Gong is now one of an assortment of religious groups that see Internet freedom as vital to religious freedom.
In a letter to the U.S. Congress last year, a coalition of groups including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, along with the Religious Action Center of Reformed Judaism, said U.S. government-funded broadcasters should devote more of their budget to developing anti-censorship software.
“Today’s Internet firewall systems are 21st century equivalents of the brick and barbed wire Berlin Walls of the 20th century,” the letter said.
Lynne Weil, a spokeswoman for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, or BBG, which oversees Voice of America and other government-funded international broadcasters, said the agency now obligates $25.5 million to Internet freedom efforts.
She conceded, however, that the BBG “had to make some difficult decisions,” including cuts to production and transmission of content, to meet the funding obligation.
Barrett Duke of the Ethics and Religious Liberty commission said some U.S. religious groups are looking for ways to proselytize internationally via the Internet, and welcome the U.S. government efforts.
“I have no doubt that there are some people who will see that there’s a way to use that greater freedom to do that,” he said, adding that online evangelization requires an initial interest on part of the user.
“Even if you put information out on the Internet, people still have to access it,” he said. “It isn’t as though it gets to them without them seeking it out.”
Pastor Zhang Boli of Washington Harvest Chinese Christian Church in northern Virginia says his videos are often accessed by Christians in China using Falun Gong’s software. Christianity has been growing rapidly in China, he says, and censorship keeps converts from learning about their newfound faith.
“Many of the pastors in China say they’re not very well educated about Christianity,” he said. “So people are always getting the wrong information. If the Internet block could be released, it would be very, very helpful for people to learn about the real Christianity.”
Brian Grim of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation says faith groups operating overseas should be careful about supporting government anti-censorship efforts.
“For a policy to try and circumvent Internet controls sounds almost like spying, so I think in many countries that would be perceived with some bit of skepticism if not alarm,” he said.
But religious movements have a huge stake in how the Internet is run, he adds, because it is increasingly where people go to share their faith.