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Christianity and China: The decline of religious freedoms

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Haidian_Church_2007_Xmas.jpg
Haidian Christian Church Three-Self Patriotic Movement, a state-registered Protestant Church in Mainland China. Creative common license. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Haidian_Church_2007_Xmas.jpg

While the fate of Christians in the middle east and their trials and tribulations often make the media, tough times lie ahead for the Christians of the Zhejiang province in eastern China. The region has endured demolition of hundreds of crosses and even churches since 2014. And now the country’s government, led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), has plans to resume the demolition drive. Zhejiang is home to about two million Protestants and 200,000 Catholic Christians. Though neglected by the Chinese government for decades, since the economic reforms, the province has been hailed as the Chinese capital of private enterprise and Christianity.

In the latest report from the area, local authorities have issued a notice to the Dongqiao Christian Church, stating that the cross installed at the church premises will be “forcefully” removed soon. Another recent report talks about churches in Zhejiang being ordered to display signs such as, “Love the Communist Party, love the country, and love the religion”. Reportedly, between 2014 and 2016, over 1,500 churches in Zhejiang alone have been impacted by this demolition drive.

Cross to bear

In President Xi Jinping’s economic renaissance model, Neo-Maoism and Neo-Confucianism coexist. According to some, the number of Christians in the country is now more than the number of Chinese Communist Party members and this is unacceptable to the Party. Party members often use the pejorative expression yang jiao (foreign teaching) to designate Christianity.

According to the Chinese leadership, public display of Christian characters, such as the cross, does not fit with the policy of Sinicization of religions. Under this policy, the CCP aims to impose strict rules on society, based on the core values of socialism, autonomy, and supporting the Party leadership.

Consequently, buying a Bible online is illegal in China, sharing Christian content online requires a permit and CCTVs are often installed in churches. Belonging to a house church is illegal and only the Three-Self Patriotic Movement is permitted. Even this church is heavily monitored.

It is quite evident that the country’s leadership wishes to promote Chinese cultural traditions, such as Confucianism and Buddhism. And the anti-Christian campaign is part of this objective. In 2013, Xi visited Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius, and stressed the importance of traditional Chinese culture in his national rejuvenation plan. On that occasion, he had called for the propagation of a nationwide “ethical doctrine” with “fundamental socialist values” based on “traditional Chinese culture”.

Consequently, underground churches are on the government’s target. For instance, in 2021, Pastor Yang Xibo and his wife Wang Xiaofei, who ran the Xunsiding Church, were collectively fined USD 55,100 for their religious activities. The couple has been fighting a legal battle ever since. On June 28, authorities doubled their fine amount. Yang and Wang then took to social media to announce their refusal to pay, stating that they possessed no property for the court to seize.

Beginning of “official” persecution

Allegedly, in 2015, Xi approved the cross-removal campaign during a meeting with members of the United Front Work Department, an influential CCP body responsible for advancing the Party’s influence. The department constitutes several complex systems and opaque organisations. Then in 2016, a “five entries and transformations” campaign was launched to control content inside churches. State officials would often come to churches and stop people from talking about the cross-removal campaign during various ceremonies.

Further, in 2018, the CCP adopted new regulations on religious affairs that require all religious groups, clergy, and members to register with the state and adhere to the Party’s socialist ideologies. It was made illegal for anybody under 18 years of age to attend church. Since then, dozens of unregistered Christian churches, schools and orphanages have been shut down and hundreds of Christians across China have been arrested.

The state campaign is gathering momentum now. According to some sources, last month the governments of Shanxi Town, Yongjia County, and Lucheng District also demanded that churches remove plaques with Christian phrases, such as “Emmanuel,” “Jesus,” “Christ,” and “Jehovah”, from public view. In Datong, Shanxi Province, the authorities demolished the local diocesan house attached with a church in February this year. This despite the fact that the house had all necessary permits and the church is one of the few CCP-recognised “official” dioceses.

Not only this, those speaking up against this injustice are having to face the wrath of the state. In 2018, the Golden Lampstand Church, one of the largest churches in China, was demolished with explosives. The church was constructed in 2009 at an estimated cost of USD 2.6 million. Authorities later claimed that the church was built without proper permits. Yang Rongli, the church’s leader, pastor Wang Xiaoguang and his wife, and ten other prominent church members were accused of financial fraud. Late in March this year, the court in Linfen city of Shanxi Province held a public hearing in the case. The verdict remains unknown. In the last two years, similar charges of fraud have been levelled against leaders and pastors of multiple churches, including Linfen Covenant Church and Xi’an Church of Abundance.

A grim future in making

Human rights groups have regularly been ranking China as one of the worst violators of religious freedom and human rights. Open Doors, a US-based Christian rights group, ranks China 16th among the 50 nations where Christians face persecution. A 63-page Annual Persecution Report 2022, released by another US-based non-governmental organisation, China Aid, highlights several instances of persecution of Christians in China. For instance, in June 2022, after a bishop refused to join the state-run church system, his church in Hebei province’s Shijiazhuang city was demolished. Then in August 2022, the Catholic Diocese of Taiyuan’s Gothic-styled Beihan Church complex was torn down. Even the 40-metre-high bell tower was not spared. Bishop Joseph Zhang Weizhu of the Xinxiang Diocese has been missing since May 2021.

According to China Aid, CCP officials “fabricate criminal charges to detain, arrest, and sentence leaders and believers”. CCP members interrupt liturgies, baptisms, pilgrimages, and even online church services. In March 2022, the authorities enacted the “Administrative Measures for Internet Religious Information Services”, under which “trained and licensed Internet Religious Information Auditors” are appointed. These auditors are students of religious schools officially registered with the government. According to the China Aid report, this move aims to control and monitor information in cyberspace. The report also reveals cases where Christian students applying to study abroad at Christian-run institutions were denied passports.

Now, earlier this month, the full English translation of the new “Administrative Measures for Religious Activity Venues” was published. The measures will come into force on September 1. The text calls for even stricter provisions for including propaganda content in sermons and establishing study groups of CCP documents in all places of worship. Religious venues must broadcast CCP propaganda or face liquidation. The Three-Self Patriotic Movement church has already sworn allegiance to the new measures, with pastors praising the policy for guaranteeing “the safety, harmony and stability of Christian places of worship and making sure that Christians will run churches in accordance with Chinese laws and regulations.”

Further, reports have been coming in that Christian schoolchildren are being asked to renounce Christianity. For instance, students at a public school in Zhejiang were asked to fill out questionnaires to declare their religious affiliation. Two children ended up writing that they were Christian. Soon, the answer sheet reached the higher school management and teachers called the parents and the children in for separate meetings. They were told to sign a declaration renouncing their faith or take the children to some other school. Fearing for their children’s future, the parents signed the document. Despite these oppressive restrictions, Christians in China are taking great risks to attend underground churches. Which direction this human rights battle takes remains to be seen.

About the Author
Sergio Restelli is an Italian political advisor, author and geopolitical expert. He served in the Craxi government in the 1990's as the special assistant to the deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice Martelli and worked closely with anti-mafia magistrates Falcone and Borsellino. Over the past decades he has been involved in peace building and diplomacy efforts in the Middle East and North Africa. He has written for Geopolitica and several Italian online and print media. In 2020 his first fiction "Napoli sta bene" was published.
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