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.

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