Persecution of Christians in China has intensified following the implementation on 1 February 2018 of controversial new Regulations for Religious Affairs. The regulations have the stated aim of protecting citizens’ freedom of religious belief but in practice increase the authorities’ control over all religious groups, including Buddhists, Taoists and Muslims as well as Christians.
The state recognises five religions (Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Taoism and Islam) and each is controlled by a state-sanctioned patriotic religious association, all five of which are supervised by the United Front Work Department, an organ of the Communist Party’s Central Committee. The practice of other faiths is officially prohibited but often tolerated, especially traditional Chinese beliefs. Religious leaders describe the revised regulations as a violation of religious freedom and Christians say they are designed to eliminate house churches.
The regulations were drafted between 2014 and 2016, following which they were circulated and revised on the basis of feedback received. The final version was approved by the State Council on 14 June 2017, signed into law by Premier Li Keqiang on 26 August 2017 and came into force on 1 February 2018.
They set out strict criteria that must be met for religious organisations to register or to establish places for their activities and govern the activities they can organise. The regulations require religious teachers and staff members to report to the authorities and stipulate that online religious activities be reported, large donations be submitted for approval to the religious affairs departments and church leaders set aside office space in their buildings for Communist Party officials to monitor their services. Parents are forbidden to bring children to church, and travel to Christian conferences abroad is banned.
Commenting on the implementation of the regulations, China Aid’s founder and president Bob Fu (pictured at the Church in Chains conference in 2019) stated, “Some indicators suggest that Christian freedom is now at its lowest level since the Cultural Revolution.”
Millions of Chinese people were persecuted and the church was forced underground during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), a sociopolitical movement intended to preserve Chinese Communist ideology and purge capitalism, tradition and religion.
Dr Fu noted that under President Xi Jinping freedom had deteriorated rapidly and persecution was getting worse. He commented, “The authorities want to make sure that every government-sanctioned church leader is under the complete control of the Communist Party and its Religious Affairs Bureau” and pointed out that the authorities are even trying to change some core Christian beliefs. “For example, they want to change the doctrine of justification by faith in Jesus Christ alone,” he explained. “They want that to become justification by love and doing good deeds. The aim of the Communist Party is to water down the core faith of Christianity and other religions to make them compatible with communism.”
In September 2018, the Associated Press reported that “Xi is waging the most severe systematic suppression of Christianity in the country since religious freedom was written into the Chinese constitution in 1982“, a suppression that involves “destroying crosses, burning Bibles, shutting churches and ordering followers to sign papers renouncing their faith.”
Sinicisation of the church in China
Christianity is growing rapidly in China, and in recent years the authorities have been cracking down on Christians in an effort to suppress growth, “Sinicise” the church (make it Chinese in character and bring it into submission under the Chinese Communist Party) and force all local churches to register with the appropriate government-controlled body (Protestant churches with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and Catholic churches with the Catholic Patriotic Association).
The crackdown was originally intended to deal with the growth of unregistered churches but has been extended to persecute registered churches. Since June 2017, churches registered with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement have been required to display the national flag and a portrait of the president, install surveillance cameras and sing the national anthem at their services, and some pastors of registered churches have been detained.
The first year: impact of the regulations on churches in Henan
While the effects of the implementation of the new regulations were felt across China, they were particularly intense in Henan province, which has a relatively high concentration of Christians.
As soon as the regulations went into effect, officials in 19 towns in the province went door-to-door urging Christians to attend government-registered churches instead of unregistered house churches and telling them to remove religious posters and crosses from their homes.
In the first year, over 7,000 crosses were removed from churches in Henan province alone, and the authorities shut down thousands of churches across the province.
(Associated Press/Bitter Winter/China Aid/Release International/World Watch Monitor)