(CNSNews.com) – China’s communist authorities have for decades imposed rigorous controls on Christians – and other minority faith groups – but the forced closure of a large church in Beijing is underlining concerns of rising persecution levels under President Xi Jinping.
The problems have worsened since new regulations on religious affairs took effect in February, giving local authorities the power to decide on religious registration applications and to take action against unsanctioned religious activity.
A U.S.-based expert on religion in China on Wednesday attributed the crackdown to Xi’s “atheist ideology” as well as surging nationalism.
“I think the motivation primarily comes from the atheist ideology that Chairman Xi Jinping learned during his formative years of the late 1950s and 1960s,” said Yang Fenggang, director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University.
“Rising nationalism is another factor for the anti-Christian and anti-Islamic campaigns,” he said in response to queries, referring in the latter case to the state’s treatment of Uighur Muslims.
Yang said Buddhism is also facing suppression, “although the measures so far are very mild compared with those on Christian churches.”
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) weighed in on the situation this week, condemning Beijing’s treatment of Christians as well as Uighurs in Xinjiang, Buddhists in Tibet, and practitioners in the Falun Gong meditation movement.
The independent statutory watchdog pointed to reports on “escalating religious freedom violations,” including the closure of the Zion Church in the capital, as well as mass detentions of Uighurs in “re-education” camps.
It said those actions and others “signal an alarming escalation in persecution of citizens in China under Xi Jinping. USCIRF condemns the Chinese government’s ongoing brutal and systematic targeting of religious communities for their beliefs.”
China only tolerates Christianity within the confines of a “patriotic” church – the Protestant “Three-Self Patriotic Movement” (TSPM) or a state-authorized “Catholic” Church whose bishops do not recognize the authority of the Vatican. (The Vatican says millions of underground Catholics remain loyal to the Pope in secret.)
Most Protestants don’t belong to TSPM congregations but are members of “house” (Jiating) churches, which can vary from a handful of believers meeting in a home to congregations hundreds-strong, meeting in rented or purchased buildings.
According to Yang’s research, an estimated 93 million - 115 million Chinese are Protestant Christians, with fewer than 30 million belonging to TSPM congregations.
The unauthorized congregations have grown at a faster rate than the state-sanctioned ones and have enjoyed relative freedom to operate, but the new regulations aim to change that.
Yang said the situation faced by unauthorized churches “is getting really serious.”
Under the new regulations, he said, authorities have demolished rooftop crosses, closed down churches, demolished some buildings, and evicted some Jiating/house church congregations in Beijing, Guangzhou, and in provinces including Henan, Jiangxi, Hebei and Liaoning.
Yang pointed to detention of two pastors in Henan and Beijing, adding, “I’m afraid we may see more detentions and arrests of Christian leaders in the coming weeks.”
Authorities on Sunday raided and sealed Zion Church, apparently for failing to register with the TSPM, and after it refused government instructions earlier this year to install 24-hour surveillance cameras.
Bob Fu, president of the Texas-based group China Aid, said the closure of the church “represents a significant escalation on President Xi’s crackdown down against religious freedom in China.”
In Henan province, a pastor told the Associated Press that authorities had set Bibles, crosses and furniture on fire during a raid last week.
Elsewhere in Henan come reports of raids during services, confiscation of property, the sealing of church premises, and even assaults on congregants deemed insufficiently cooperative – for instance by trying to film the incidents on their phones.
Some churches in Henan have been ordered to prominently display the national flag and portraits of Xi and Mao Zedong.
Fu said that “the international community should be alarmed and outraged at this blatant violation of freedom of religion and belief and demand the Chinese regime stop and remedy this dangerous course.”
According to Fu – a house church pastor who faced harassment and detention before he and his wife moved as refugees to the U.S. in the 1990s – pastors at Zion Church have vowed to continue holding worship services, outdoors.
‘Core socialist values’
The TSPM was established in 1950, and its unusual “three self” name refers to the three goals of self-governance, self-support and self-propagation – emphasizing the importance of resisting influences from outside of China.
An affiliated body, established in 1980, is known as the China Christian Council (CCC).
Organizations working among Chinese Christians have long attributed reluctance of many Protestants to register with the TSPM to theological concerns, particularly the notion that loyalty to the state should take precedence over belief in Jesus Christ.
That notion was promoted by Bishop Ting Kuang-hsun, the TSPM’s leading theologian, who also called into question the divine inspiration of the Bible. Ting died in 2012.
Last May, the Communist Party organ Global Times reported on the launch by the TSPM/CCC of a “five-year plan on the Sinification of Christianity from 2018 to 2022.”
“According to the plan, it will increase the level of Sinification of Christianity, including digging into contents in the Bible that are in line with core socialist values, then turning them into easily understood reading materials,” the newspaper reported.
“It will also endeavor to increase the proportion of core socialist values, patriotism and Chinese history into the curriculum of China-based theology institutes as well as promote Chinese elements in preaching, religious poems and songs, clothing and church designs,” Global Times said.
“Core socialist values will also become a major part of Christian preaching, and trainings of preachers will be organized.”