Amid new rumours of a deal with the Holy See, persecution of Christians is at its highest level since the Cultural Revolution

Reports emerged last week that a long-awaited deal between China and the Holy See is imminent. Whatever the merits or disadvantages of any deal, it could hardly come at a more awkward time. Earlier this month authorities shut down Zion Church, a large house church in Beijing, and further tightened restrictions on sharing religious material online. China is currently engaged in the worst crackdown on Christians in decades.

Zion Church is just the latest community to fall foul of tough regulations on religious practice which came into force in February. The 1,500-strong congregation has worshipped together for many years without difficulty, despite being unregistered and independent of the state-controlled Protestant body known as the Three-Self Patriotic Movement.

But after the new regulations came into force, Zion Church began to face significant harassment, and several of its satellite meeting places were shut down. In April, the authorities instructed the church to install 24 closed-circuit cameras for “security”. When church leaders refused, hundreds of worshippers were questioned by the police. Finally, on September 9, the church was told that it was now “legally banned”.

A similar story is repeated throughout China. In Zhejiang province from 2014 to 2016, more than 1,500 churches had their crosses demolished or removed after a campaign by the local authorities. In January this year, the Golden Lampstand Church in Linfen, Shanxi province, was destroyed using dynamite and bulldozers.

Since February, in Henan province alone authorities have confiscated Bibles from hundreds of Christians, demolished more than 20 churches, removed or destroyed at least 100 crosses and other religious symbols, and made hundreds of arrests. On April 17, a Catholic church in Luoyang was demolished along with the priest’s house and the tombstone of Bishop Li Hongye, appointed by the Vatican but not recognised by the government. Two priests from the same diocese were driven out of their parish.

Churches in Henan, Jiangxi, Zhejiang, Liaoning and Hebei provinces have been ordered to fly the Chinese flag, destroy banners and images with religious messages, and sing the national anthem and Communist Party songs at their services. Children under 18 have been forbidden to attend churches, and local people have been threatened with expulsion from education and employment if they “believe in religions”. In some parts of the country the faithful have been asked to replace paintings of Jesus Christ with portraits of President Xi Jinping, as a personality cult which echoes that of Chairman Mao takes root.

In a letter published by China Aid, an anonymous Protestant from Henan wrote: “Recently, some officials walked around the neighbourhood to request residents smash all ceramic tiles with inscriptions of ‘Emmanuel’ or ‘God so loved the world’ on the outside wall or doors, accusing them of propaganda. If believers did not obey, those officials smashed the tiles themselves. Now, they even enter households to search for Christian paintings inside the house. If residents do not remove the paintings, those officials simply rip them off, including the one in my mother’s bedroom.

“Some low-income believers are threatened that their state subsidies will be cancelled if they keep their faith. Our church choir director is the director of the Women’s Federation. She was told not to attend Sunday services … If any child is seen inside the church, the church will be forced to close. At this challenging period, many believers are afraid to come to church.”

AsiaNews, the official press agency of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, reported that the authorities were “burning crosses on the bell towers, replacing them with the red flags of China; slogans praising the Party and the values of socialism are exposed on religious buildings, erasing sacred images that are considered too Western.”

The crackdown is not only against Christians. The persecution of Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong practitioners continues, and in Xinjiang up to a million Uyghur Muslims have been detained in “re-education camps”. Last week, Human Rights Watch released a detailed report entitled “Eradicating Ideological Viruses: China’s Campaign of Repression Against Xinjiang’s Muslims”. Many Muslims are believed to have been detained without charge, sometimes for activities as simple as praying, wearing Islamic clothing, refusing to eat pork or drink alcohol, or reading the Koran. The families of those sent to re-education camps are not told where their relatives are being held or when they will be released. There is no access to legal counsel or the right of appeal.

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Those who defend religious freedom have also faced grave consequences. Over the past few years at least 300 lawyers, human rights defenders and their families and associates have been arrested, jailed or “disappeared”. They include the well-known Christian lawyer Gao Zhisheng. Many such people have worked bravely to defend religious believers.

A new draft regulation on online religious activities further intensifies the repression. Under the proposed draft, those wishing to disseminate religious teachings and information must apply for a licence and meet certain requirements. According to the draft, this would apply to “texts, pictures, audio and video etc through internet sites, applications, forums, blogs, microblogs, public accounts, instant messaging tools, and live webcasts”. In addition, “inciting minors to participate in religious activities” would be banned. The fact that the word “incitement” is used in this regard indicates a new level of hostility towards religion.

AsiaNews quoted a Chinese priest, identified only as Fr Peter, lamenting the online restrictions, which even apply to the Vatican’s official news portal. “Once we could consult Vatican News, ucanews.com, AsiaNews.it and others,” he said.

“Now they are blocked. News about the Catholic Church can only be viewed from the mainland Catholic Church websites and faith press. Although we have eyes, now visually impaired, we cannot fully understand the specific situation and information of the Universal Church and the local Churches.”

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The Chinese Communist Party has always sought to restrict religious activity. For the first three decades of communist rule it tried to eradicate it violently. But after the death of Mao and the period of reform over the past 40 years, the policy was one of control rather than outright repression, and there were periods of relaxation in some parts of the country.

However, since Xi Jinping came to power in 2013 he has pursued a severe crackdown on all human rights, including religious freedom. Last year he launched a campaign to “sinicise” religion. In March this year, it was announced that religious affairs would now be overseen by the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department. In a one-party state the distinction between government and party may seem academic, but this move is a clear signal that Xi regards the repression of religion as part of an ideological battle.

Given the pace of growth in Christianity – and religious belief more widely – in China, the crackdown is ultimately a sign of the Communist Party’s insecurity about its own survival. If Ian Johnson, author of The Souls of China: the Return of Religion after Mao, is correct, there are at least 60 million Christians in China today. (There are roughly 10 million Catholics, meaning that the vast majority of Christians are Protestant.) Johnson estimates that there are potentially as many as 400 million adherents of some form of religious belief in total. And that is a conservative figure.

This has alarmed the regime, which feels threatened by any idea or gathering of people that could rival the Communist Party. Yet Christians have made it clear that they will not take the increased repression lying down. Earlier this month, 279 Protestant pastors issued a joint declaration, describing the persecution as “unprecedented since the end of the Cultural Revolution”. But they said they would not accept being banned or fined. “Under no circumstances will we lead our churches to join a religious organisation controlled by the government, to register with the religious administration department, or to accept any kind of affiliation,” they wrote. “For the sake of the Gospel, we are prepared to bear all losses – even the loss of our freedom and of our lives.”

According to some forecasts, China may soon have more Christians than any other country in the world. No one can predict their long-term future, but in the short term, it is certain that they will continue to suffer, quietly and heroically, for the faith.

Benedict Rogers is East Asia team leader at the international human rights organisation CSW, and author of From Burma to Rome: a Journey into the Catholic Church

This article first appeared in the September 21 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here