It’s now six months since tough new restrictions on religious freedom came into force across China. Release International, which supports Christians under pressure around the world, says persecution has been rising dramatically. Partners report a five-fold increase in the number of Christians facing harassment from the authorities. Churches are being forced to tear down crosses and replace them with the national flag. Release has launched a petition calling for the new religious restrictions to be repealed.
The new Regulations for Religious Affairs tighten up on the registration and control of religious organisations. They give more power to local officials to approve the activities of churches and decide their fate. Even before the tough new rules were implemented, documented cases of persecution were rising.
According to Release partner Bob Fu, the persecution of Christians in China is now at the highest level since the Cultural Revolution. Fu recorded a fivefold increase in the number of Christians who were persecuted by the government in 2017.
He told the Washington Times: ‘We documented persecution against 1,265 churches, and 223,000 people.’ Of those, 3,700 Christians were arrested. ‘That is just the tip of the iceberg.’
According to Fu, of China Aid, persecution against Christians has increased further since the new religious regulations came into force: ‘Thousands of churches have been banned.’
As well as closing churches, the authorities have destroyed them, torn down their crosses, arrested and imprisoned their pastors, and detained lawyers trying to represent them in the courts.
A US State Department report on religious freedom has described China as carrying out a ‘far-reaching strategy to control, govern and manipulate all aspects of faith.’ That included torture, forced confessions and compelling Christians to renounce their faith.
Documented cases of persecution include prominent Christian lawyers and pastors who have stood up for the rights of the poor. Those who question the authorities can find themselves branded enemies of the state and charged with undermining national security.
Since the new regulations came into force in February this year, churches in Luoning County in Henan Province have had their windows smashed and property confiscated. Preachers have been prevented from giving sermons. Officials have removed crosses, cut power to a church and arrested its pastors.
As part of the crackdown, churches across the country are facing pressure to openly display their allegiance to the Communist Party.
All churches in Xinyu County have been ordered to display the national flag as well as a picture of President Xi Jinping and posters extolling socialist values. In Jiangxi Province, more than 40 churches have been made to hang up notices banning non-locals from preaching and underage people from attending services. The government has also threatened to cancel the welfare of low-income residents should they attend church.
Government officials in other regions are forcing churches to tear down their crosses and replace them with the national flag.
Here is a snapshot of just some of the restrictions imposed in August 2018 alone, six months since the new religious restrictions came into force:
- The authorities ordered a church in China’s north-central Gansu Province to close. Christians in four other churches in the area are now gathering in secret, rather than meet in their churches.
- Law enforcement officers broke into the Bible Reformed Church in China’s southern Guangdong Province and ordered its pastor to stop preaching. Pastor Huang Xiaoning called for a show of respect and said he would cooperate with them after his sermon. The police remained in the church, listening to the sermon for 30 minutes. After the service, Pastor Huang told his congregation: ‘Thank the Lord that our service could be held. We should all the more treasure every Sunday gathering. I also thank the Lord for leading those law enforcement officers to our church and giving them half an hour to listen to the sermon. May the Lord have mercy on them and open their hearts. May the Lord grant us courage.’ After the service, a visitor to the church shook the pastor’s hand and said, ‘When I saw your behaviour, I felt there really is a God!’ The Bible Reformed Church has been targeted repeatedly by Chinese officials.
- On August 17, government officials demolished a 268-year-old church in Shandong without explanation. 170 officers broke into the church and razed the entire building.
- The previous day, more than 20 policemen and Religious Affairs Bureau officials broke into a church in China’s central Henan province and hauled away many of the Christians gathered there. They pushed a woman to the ground and knocked a child off a chair.
‘It feels like another Cultural Revolution,’ said one believer from Shangqiu.
Christians in parts of central China say it is now ‘dangerous’ to be a believer – amid the arrests, cross removals and intense persecution. In Luoning County, many Christians have been detained and others barred from preaching and gathering for worship.
According to Release partner Bob Fu, the persecution of Christians has worsened dramatically under Pres Xi Jinping. He warns of a ‘new spiritual storm coming to the Chinese church’. The authorities are labelling Christians as belonging to ‘evil cults’ and have forbidden people from holding prayer meetings in their homes under threat of demolition or confiscation of their houses. They have also banned Christians from sharing religious messages with anyone under 18.
Face recognition cameras have been installed in churches to spy on congregations and preachers, and within a month of the new regulations, observers say more than a hundred members of religious minorities were sent to re-education camps.
Release International has launched a petition calling on China to repeal its new religious ordinance. The right to religious belief is guaranteed under Article 36 of China’s Constitution, but the country’s tough new regulations further restrict the actual practice of those beliefs.
The Release petition expresses ‘deep concern at the growing and sustained campaign of repression being waged by government officials against the Christian church under regulations introduced in February 2018.’
Says Release International Chief Executive Paul Robinson: ‘A nation that is as developed as China does not need to be so fearful of believers that it has to monitor and imprison them. Surely China is strong enough to allow those with differing beliefs to exist side-by-side?’
You can sign the petition on-line at the Release International website, here. (Please Note: Petition now closed.)
Even so, the number of Chinese Christians is growing. There are now said to be more Christians than members of the Communist Party, which is troubling the authorities of this atheist state.
A leaked Communist Party document has called for restrictions ‘to contain the overheated growth of Christianity.’
Through its partners, Release supports Christians in China by providing Bibles and other Christian resources, including the production and distribution of a book about Christian marriage. Release also supports workers in China who investigate cases of persecution, provides support to families and arranges legal aid.
Release International is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Through its international network of missions, UK-based Release serves persecuted Christians by supporting pastors and Christian prisoners and their families, supplying Christian literature and Bibles, and working for justice.