Crackdown on unofficial churches comes as Vatican and Beijing sign controversial deal on appointment of bishops
Pastor Jin Mingri has felt first-hand the pain of one of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s harshest crackdowns on religion in years.
Jin’s Zion Church in Beijing, one of the biggest unofficial congregations in the country, was abruptly demolished by authorities this month, who then sent him a bill for 1.2m yuan (£133,000) for the related costs. Jin had preached there every Sunday for decades.
“Before, as long as you didn’t meddle in politics the government left you alone,” he said. “But now if you don’t push the Communist party line, if you don’t display your love for the party, you are a target.
“Of course, we’re scared, we’re in China, but we have Jesus.”
Zion belonged to a vast network of unofficial “house” churches that function outside of the government mandated system, and for decades were tolerated by authorities.
They have long been vulnerable but have become more vulnerable as China’s leaders call for the “Sinificatio
n” of religious practice. New regulations that came in in February require tighter control of places of worship, with some forced to install CCTV cameras that fed live footage to local authorities. In the months that followed, officials across China have removed crosses from church buildings and demolished others perceived as too large in the hope of reducing the public visibility of religion.
The crackdown comes as the Vatican and Beijing signed a provisional agreement last week that would give the Pope a say in the appointment of bishops in China, an issue that has long caused friction between the two. As part of the deal the pope will recognise seven Chinese bishops who were appointed unilaterally by Beijing and had been excommunicated by the Vatican.
But some even within the church have called the arrangement “an incredible betrayal” of underground Catholics who have remained faithful to Rome despite facing potential repercussions.
At the same time, an estimated 1 million Muslims have been detained in “re-education” camps in Xinjiang province. The measures ultimately have the same goal: to give Beijing tighter control over groups officials see as a potential threat to their grip on power.
Bob Fu, founder of the religious rights group ChinaAid, said Chinese officials were trying to shrink both the official and unofficial branches of the church. He said he had received reports of dozens of rural village chiefs forcing residents to sign papers denouncing Christianity, lest they lose state welfare benefits.
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But Fu said the church would survive.
“I have hope for the future, these campaigns were done in Roman times, under Stalin and under Mao, and none succeeded,” he said. “It will only have the opposite effect, and if Communist party cadres studied history, they would see this. Crackdowns will cause the church to grow faster, and help church be more united.”
US lawmakers held a hearing this week on “China’s war on Christianity and other faiths”, and focused extensively on the crackdown on house churches and the agreement between Beijing and the Vatican.
Chris Smith, a US congressman who led the hearing, accused China of “taking a hammr and sickle to the cross”.
“Burning Bibles, destroying churches, and jailing Muslims by the million is only part of the Chinese Communist Party’s audaciously repressive assault on conscience and religion,” he said.
For decades after the Communist revolution in 1949, believers in any religion were harshly persecuted as Mao Zedong pursued his socialist dream. In 1982, China adopted a new constitution that technically guaranteed freedom of religion, but it has not stopped authorities from shutting churches, demanding patriotic loyalty from pastors and imams and even dictating how the faithful can pray.
Even while religions were technically allowed to exist – there are 60 million Christians in China – the constitution says “religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination”, a key hurdle for the Catholic church. China limits the number of officially sanctioned religions to five: Buddhism, Taoism, Protestantism, Catholicism and Islam.
Pamela Kyle Crossley, a history professor at Dartmouth College in the US, warned that the Vatican agreement could be just the first step in an escalating series of demands and said the church was being naive in its negotiations with Beijing.
“If the Vatican is willing to give the [Communist party] the right to appoint amenable bishops in China, the [Communist party] will soon point out that it has a distinct interest in promoting amenable bishops in many parts of Asia, and certainly in Africa, probably in Latin America, and very possibly in Italy itself,” she wrote in a recent blog post.
“Where Chinese investment goes, [Communist party] interest in acquiescence and harmony follow. Nobody advises on turning the other cheek or handing over your cloak with your tunic like the Church.”