The state of religious freedom in China is moving from bad to worse, said U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), responding to a new report by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. “There’s a huge gulf now” between China and the Catholic Church, Smith stated during an Oct. 9 conference call with reporters. He acknowledged that “the underground church has been brutally persecuted in China, both Protestant and Catholic,” but said that now even the state-recognized church is facing persecution.      “The Patriotic Church, the Catholic Church, they are being targeted with church demolitions and other kinds of repression which we have not seen before. So there’s a great deal of concern that religious freedom, as bad as it was, has further deteriorated in China.” Smith and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) co-hosted the teleconference, focusing on the latest annual report from the human rights monitoring group, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. Both lawmakers cited various ways that the Chinese government has infringed upon the freedom of its citizens, including gross violations of human rights and targeting churches. Smith cited a statement from the report: “Chinese authorities continued to harass, detain, imprison, and interfere with the religious activities of members of both registered and unregistered Protestant communities who ran afoul of government or party policy.” It is very easy to “run afoul of government policy,” Smith added, noting that simply meeting to talk about religion could be a violation. The report also detailed the government’s hostility to Catholicism, saying that “authorities continued to harass Catholics who practice their faith outside of state-approved parameters.” Among the incidents of harassment in the past year were the reported detainment of two underground Catholic priests for “organizing adult catechism classes” and fines levied against laymen supporting the priests’ efforts. The government reportedly prevented Catholics from joining Pope Francis in his visit to South Korea, and threatened Chinese Catholics already in South Korea against participating in the papal events, the report noted. Smith reflected on concerns stemming from a meeting he had with the atheist head of the government’s religious freedom office. “They are so dismissive and disparaging of God and religion and religious expressions, it’s no wonder that they are at a hair-trigger to do anything they want, and they do it with impunity to hurt religious expression,” he stated.