New year, new rules as Year of the Dog looks set to be Year of the Underdog. Release warns persecution set to rise as new rules clamp down on the Church.

The Chinese New Year looks set to be a year of new restrictions for Christians. As China celebrates the Year of the Dog from February 16, Chinese Christians are bracing for what looks set to be the year of the underdog – due to a raft of new restrictions on freedom of religion.

New regulations that have come into force from February could lead to the most severe crackdown on the Church in China since the Cultural Revolution.

The new Regulations for Religious Affairs are intended to clamp down on extremism. They forbid religious organisations from using religion to ‘harm national security or disrupt social order’.

But Release International, which supports persecuted Christians around the world, warns the new regulations will drive more churches underground and make life much harder for those already under strict government control.

Release International’s partners warn the tough new rules will lead to a rise in religious persecution in China over the next decade.

Threat to state-controlled churches

Under the new regulations even established sites for religious activities must be ‘in harmony with the needs of urban planning’. This means that even state-controlled churches are subject to review. The rules give local government officials the power to decide whether churches should be recognised by the state and to forbid the use of venues as places of worship.

The first indications that the clampdown is spreading to officially recognised churches came last December, when the authorities demolished a 20-year-old Catholic church in Shanxi, even though it held authorised legal permits.

Since June last year, officials have required government-run Three-Self Churches to display the national flag and sing the national anthem at their services.

China has become a country of key concern for Release International. Persecution has grown under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, as the Communist Party tightens its control over the church.

Cross removals

 China’s leaders are worried about the rapid spread of Christianity in their country. The revival of the Protestant church in Zhejiang has led to a wave of 1500 crosses being pulled down from church roofs and some churches being demolished. The authorities say this is to ‘contain the overheated growth of Christianity’. And the cross removals are now being extended to other provinces.

Christians who have launched legal protests over the cross removals have been beaten up and arrested. Some Christian leaders have been sentenced to ten years imprisonment for mounting a legal challenge.

Many human rights lawyers, including Christians, have also been arrested. They have been denied visits by their families or legal representation.

‘Illegal’ offerings

The new rules also limit the offerings a church can receive before having to submit them for the examination and approval of communist officials.

Two pastors at Houshi Church in Guizhou province have been fined more than $1 million for taking so-called illegal offerings. The authorities later went on to seize their church premises without a court order. Release partners say Pastor Yang Hua has been tortured in police custody and his family threatened. A charge of ‘illegally possessing state secrets’ was later hardened to ‘divulging state secrets’.

‘This assumption that Christians are involved in espionage makes all-too clear the way China is increasingly regarding Christians as enemies of the state,’ says Paul Robinson, the CEO of Release International. ‘These new rules are intended to bring the church under the ever-tighter control of the state, even though the Chinese constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief.

‘Ironically, where churches have used lawyers to campaign for their legal rights, those lawyers have been arrested. In some cases, they have disappeared and have been tortured into making forced confessions –  all this for trying to work within the law to uphold the rule of law in China.’

Church dynamited

In January, the Chinese authorities used dynamite to blow up the Golden Lampstand church in Shanxi province. They also imprisoned the church leaders for seven years.

And on 18 January, the authorities sentenced six Christians for up to 13 years for supposedly being part of an ‘evil cult’ that was attempting to undermine the law.

‘This labelling of churches as “evil” organisations working against the state and the national interest is of deep concern,’ says Paul Robinson. ‘Christians in China are patriotic. They pray for their leaders and work for the good of their nation.’

‘Some indicators suggest that Christian freedom is now at its lowest level since the Cultural Revolution,’ says Release partner Bob Fu of ChinaAid. ‘China has jailed more citizen journalists than the rest of the world combined, and under the new president, freedom has been deteriorating rapidly and persecution is getting worse,’ he says. ‘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.’

Sunday school banned

That control extends to banning Christians from taking children to church and forbidding all Sunday school teaching. The new rules also ban attending overseas religious conferences; any homes used for unauthorised worship could be demolished, and owners who allow worship to take place on their premises could face heavy fines.

The authorities are even trying to change some of the core beliefs of the Christian faith to bend it towards Chinese socialism. ‘For example,’ says Bob Fu, ‘they want to change the doctrine of justification by faith in Jesus Christ alone. They want that to become justification by love and doing good deeds.’

That way, the churches will effectively be made to teach that good communists can go to heaven ­- even though the authorities don’t believe in heaven.

Churches monitored

The new rules also insist that church leaders set aside office space in their buildings for Communist Party officials to monitor their services to check whether they are keeping to the rules. Officials have also been given powers to monitor church offerings and donations.

‘The aim of the Communist Party is to water down the core faith of Christianity and other religions to make them compatible with communism,’ says Release partner Bob Fu. ‘Given these rules, we anticipate the Communist Party will intensify its persecution against Christians in the coming decade.’

Church growth

But despite the persecution, the growth of Christianity in China seems unstoppable. ‘Under communism, Christianity has grown from one million Christians in China to an estimated 100 million today,’ says Bob Fu.

Western sociologists have projected that even at the slowest rate of growth, the number of Chinese Christians will exceed 220 million by 2030 – making China the largest Christianised nation in the world.

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.



Note to Editor

 Interview opportunity: Release International is bringing Bob Fu of ChinaAid to the UK in March. He will be available for interview on March 15. To arrange an interview, please call Andrew Boyd on 07919 311993 or 01903 744993.

For more information, please contact Andrew Boyd or Release International on 01689 823491