The Chinese government’s campaign to “Sinicize” organized religion – to make religion completely subordinate to the Communist Party – grew more aggressive this year and featured the destruction of Bibles, crosses, and entire churches.
Religious freedom activists call it the worst crackdown on Christianity since religious freedom was nominally granted by the 1982 Chinese constitution.
A Fox News report on Monday linked the crackdown with Communist Party leader Xi Jinping’s ascension to dictatorial power and the fulfillment of worst-case fears expressed by underground Christian leaders when Beijing began using government-controlled churches to co-opt the religion:
Activists reportedly filmed footage of what appeared to be piles of burning bibles and forms declaring that the signatories had rejected their faith. The authorities allegedly forced the believers to sign the forms or risk being expelled from school or losing welfare benefits.
A Christian Pastor in the Henan city of Nanyang, whose name was identified out of fear of retaliation by the authorities, reportedly confirmed that crosses, bibles, and furniture were burned during a raid on his church on Sept. 5.
He added that local authorities were in discussions with the church about reforming it, but no agreement had been reached.
The pastor referenced in the Fox report, Shen Xianfeng, wrote that Chinese officials have “assaulted” churches with every bureaucratic weapon at their disposal:
All kinds of official forces, from public security, armed police units, high ranking officers or low rank ones from the levels of province, county, and village all came out to threaten, to detain, to tear down, and to seal house churches’ doors and to hit, break, and rob, [using] all kinds of means to repeat what happened during ‘the Cultural Revolution.’ What they did was totally not based on the law, and it was improper and unreasonable. They acted in direct opposition to righteous and moral principles.
My heart is aching, and I am sad. I am crying out loud. What I cannot figure out day and night is this: do these governing authorities really want to have the war be interior and exterior? To fight the exterior trade war with the U.S.A. and to fight the interior war with vulnerable and kind Christians? What are they thinking about? What is their purpose?
“The international community should be alarmed and outraged for this blatant violation of freedom of religion and belief,” declared Bob Fu of China Aid, which published Pastor Shen Xianfeng’s letter and documented numerous incidents of the oppressive behavior he cited.
The Fox report linked Beijing’s crackdown on Christianity with its industrial-scale oppression of the Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang province. The Chinese government has also taken disturbing actions against its other large Muslim population, the much less restless, ethnically Chinese Hui Muslims of Ningxia.
Xi has described organized religion as a nefarious “foreign influence” that can only be safely assimilated into Chinese society by giving it “Chinese characteristics,” by which he means decisively placing it under the control of the Chinese government and mixing state propaganda into religious services.
The reason Chinese officials are burning Bibles (and deleting Bible downloads from the Chinese internet) is that only the government-approved version of the Bible is allowed. In one of the more grotesque abuses of the “Sinicization” program, images of Jesus have been replaced with photos of Xi. In August, Chinese police raided a Christian summer camp, sent the two parish priests who organized the event packing, and replaced them with “state-approved priests.”
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Municipal officials in Beijing shut down one of the largest underground churches in the country, the Protestant Zion church. The church’s books and publications were confiscated as “illegal promotional material.” Worshipers were provided with a list of state-controlled churches they could attend instead.
The Zion church made the news in April by rejecting government demands to install closed-circuit cameras throughout its headquarters so its activities could be monitored by the authorities.
Zion Pastor Jin Mingri said surrendering to the Communist Party’s oppressive demands would be a betrayal of his faith: “I fear that there is no way to resolve this issue with the authorities. On this land, the only one we can trust in his God.”
“Only Sinicized churches can obtain God’s love,” China’s religious affairs department insisted in an April publication. Voice of America News charted the agency’s publication of “Regulations for Religious Affairs” as the beginning of the intense crackdown on Christianity:
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Hundreds of family churches in Henan have reportedly been shut down since February when authorities became aggressive in implementing the newly-enacted Regulations for Religious Affairs. Family churches, also known as house churches, are independent of the state-sanctioned religious organizations.
“This is a provincial crackdown. In addition to the removal of church crosses, [Henan authorities] plan to merge many local Christian churches. Some local priests told me that up to two-thirds of churches there may be closed down,” Liu said.
Similar raids were conducted recently on Christian churches in Guangdong and Heilongjiang provinces.
Some observers see China’s oppression of Tibetan Buddhists as the beginning of an inevitable crackdown on all religions, a warning sign that should not have been ignored. VOA noted that Beijing is still pushing the Tibetan Buddhists around, most recently with a three-day training course in June intended to “strengthen their political beliefs” by teaching them to embrace “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”