China Aid attributed the deterioration to the communist authorities’ “response to the growth of Christianity in China.”
It said it documented 572 cases of persecution last year, involving 17,884 individuals – a 300 percent increase from 2013, when it recorded 143 cases involving 7,424 people.
Of those 17,884 victims of persecution in 2014, at least 1,592 were church leaders, it said.
“In 2014, Christians and practitioners of other faiths in China experienced the harshest persecution seen in over a decade, including draconian measures taken by Xi Jinping’s administration to eliminate all religious, political, and social dissent,” the report stated.
In of the biggest jumps among various categories of abuses monitored, the number of Chinese religious practitioners sentenced after being convicted of various criminal offenses increased from 12 in 2013 to 1,274 in 2014.
As in earlier years, charges brought against citizens during 2014 ranged from “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order” to “fraud.” (Rights campaigners have long accused Chinese officials of bringing trumped up charges when acting against religious practitioners.)
The figures of those sentenced include those accused of “cult” activities, with many of the “anti-cult” trials conducted in secret, the report said.
According to China Aid, the government has launched large-scale campaigns of persecution against Christian house churches in particular, under the guise of countering “cults.”
Invoking a criminal code clause dealing with “cults and sects and using superstition to undermine law enforcement,” authorities have cracked down on house church pastors, elders and congregants, it said.
“Noting an inherent hostility towards religion and the fact that the CPC [Communist Party of China] endorses atheism as the official doctrine of the Chinese state, its attempt to define any particular religion as a cult is biased, at the very least.”
China Aid said the anti-“cult” campaign appeared to target “religious communities whose doctrines inherently object to the official atheistic ideology of the CPC or are perceived as threats to the ‘stability’ of Chinese society as defined by the Chinese government.”
Crosses in the firing line
The Chinese state sanctions two “patriotic” Christian organizations, one Protestant one Catholic.
The Protestant body, the Three Self-Patriotic Movement (TSPM) boasts some 23 million registered members while the Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA) claims some six million members.
But millions more are reported to worship in unregistered Protestant house churches or to belong to unapproved Roman Catholic congregations loyal to the Pope rather than a Beijing-appointed leadership. Pew Research Center estimates in 2012 put these numbers of independent believers at 45 million Protestants and more than three million Catholics.
Even though the TSPM is state-sanctioned, it did not escape official harassment in 2014, according to China Aid.
In Zhejiang province, for instance, both house churches and TSPM churches were targeted in a government crackdown on supposedly “illegal structures,” it said. Officials cited violations such as incomplete government paperwork for the buildings.
“In reality, the campaign indiscriminately removed and demolished crosses on church buildings and, in many cases, demolished the entire church building, regardless of whether the building had been previously approved by the Chinese government.”
China Aid said it received reports from Christian leaders in Zhejiang to the effect that more than 30 churches were demolished during the campaign, 422 crosses removed, more than 300 believers detained and more than 10 church leaders arrested.
The actual figures were believed to much greater, it said, pointing to unverified local media reports indicating that some 50 churches were demolished, 1,000 crosses removed, and at least 1,300 Christians detained or arrested for trying to prevent the destruction of churches or crosses.
In one TSPM church in the Zhejiang city of Wenzhou, congregants stood guard for a month in a bid to prevent demolition of a sanctuary built over 12 years, at a cost of $4.8 million raised through members’ donations. Nonetheless the church was demolished one night in April, dozens of staff members were detained, and eight were charged with “illegally appropriating farmland” and with gathering a crowd to disturb the social order.
The report said a similar drive targeting churches and crosses occurred in three other provinces last year – Anhui, Shandong and Henan.
Based in Midland, Texas, China Aid was founded by Bob Fu, who was himself a house church pastor who faced harassment and detention before he and his wife moved as refugees to the U.S. in 1996.
China Aid said its latest report focuses on the persecution of Christians rather than adherents of other faiths, since it predominantly receives reports of abuses from Christian communities in China.
According to a 2014 annual report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), conditions faced by Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims in China “are worse now than at any time in the past decade.”
The USCIRF report also dealt in depth with abuses faced by independent Catholics and Protestants, folk religionists and Falun Gong practitioners.
China is one of nine countries designated by the State Department as “countries of particular concern” for egregious violations of religious freedom. The others are Burma, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.