Christians fear intimidation as new regulations are implemented this week
The destruction of a Protestant megachurch in Linfen, where more than 50,000 Christians worshipped, and the demolition of a Catholic village church in Shaanxi, may foretell a deeper crisis for Christianity in China. Many Christians think the demolition of the two churches could be linked to a revised set of “Regulations on Religious Affairs,” which came into effect at the beginning of February. They fear the demolitions could be the sign of a nationwide drive to tighten state control over religious life in China.
The new laws are part of President Xi Jinping’s broader campaign to boost national security and resist what the authorities see as the “foreign infiltration” of religions in China. The regulations say that religious groups should “practice the core socialist values” and must not “endanger national security” or harm state interests.
Since President Xi came to power in late 2012, he has repeatedly warned about “unprecedented security risks” and said that national security must be under “the absolute leadership of the Communist Party.” According to a state publication, socialism’s “core values” and Chinese culture should guide religions in China, and people should “safeguard against the infiltration of Western ideology.” In 2014, a report published by a government think tank said “the Western hostile forces’ infiltration in the Chinese religious sector had become more comprehensive and widespread” and has the ability to “incite and deceive.”
However, Christians fear the new regulations have emboldened lower-level officials to “act tough” as they are now allowed to oversee the activities of China’s religious communities—a move expected to lead to intensified harassment of Christians and churches. Under the new regulations, officials can impose large fines on unsanctioned activities. For example, organizers of unapproved overseas trips for Christians to attend conferences or even papal Masses could be fined up to $30,000.
Xu Yonghai, the leader of an unregistered “house” church in Beijing, said he is expecting more state harassment. Mr Xu and other members of the Holy Love Christian Fellowship have been imprisoned the past for “endangering state security” by documenting the destruction of house churches in Hangzhou or trying to hold a Bible study. Mr Xu says that police still question him and interrupt his church’s meetings from time to time.
“The room for religious belief is definitely narrowing,” Xu said. “We Christians have to be prepared to follow in our predecessors’ footsteps of the 1950s,” referring to the Mao-era persecution of Chinese Christians. When the Communist Party took power in 1949, Chinese churches were forced to sever links with foreign Christian churches and join state-sanctioned “patriotic” churches or face prosecutions.
Amnesty International described the new rules as “draconian” and warned that officials may increase persecution of those practising their religious beliefs outside of officially sanctioned organizations or churches. This could include banning certain religious activities and imposing financial penalties on religious organizations.
Professor Ying Fuk Tsang, director of the divinity school at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, believes the government is increasing its control of religious activities because it regards the growth of Christianity in China as “too fast and too heated.” China had an estimated 58 million Protestants and 9 million Catholics in 2010, according to the 2011 Report of Global Christianity. By 2030, the total Christian population, including both Protestants and Catholics, could exceed 247 million, making it one of the largest in the world.
Last week, Cardinal Joseph Zen, Emeritus of Hong Kong, wrote on Facebook: “So, do I think that the Vatican is selling out the Catholic Church in China? Yes, definitely, if they go in the direction which is obvious from all what they are doing in recent years and months.”
Greg Burke, Director of the Holy See Press Office, denied recent allegations of the Pope and Vatican’s treatment of the Catholic Church in China. e responded with a statement denouncing the widespread news on a presumed difference of thought and action between the Holy Father and his collaborators in the Roman Curia on issues relating to China.