Burning Crosses and Bibles: China’s Crackdown on Underground Churches

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Originally published by Albawaba News on November 14, 2018

Early in the morning of September 5, hundreds of police officers raided a church in Nanyang City in the Henan Province of China. After breaking in, they found the church’s cross and all of its bibles and hymns, piled them outside, and burned them. 

Early in the morning of September 5, hundreds of police officers raided a church in Nanyang City in the Henan Province of China. After breaking in, they found the church’s cross and all of its bibles and hymns, piled them outside, and burned them. 

When worshippers heard what was happening to their church, a few of them came out to save what little was left. They were forcibly dragged away from the scene by the police officers.

The church that was targeted is known as a ‘house church’ in China, one of thousands that operate independently of China’s state-backed Catholic and Protestant authorities. They are being demolished by the thousands, while their pastors and priests are detained and their patrons beaten if they resist.

China is cracking down on nascent Christian assemblies with a combination of police intimidation and state-of-the-art surveillance, and that crackdown appears to be intensifying.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), under the leadership of Xi Jinping, has ramped up efforts to securalize and control its religious minorities. From sending Muslims to concentration camps and putting their towns in virtual lock down, to preventing foreign missionaries from reaching China’s tiny native Jewish population, the CCP is working to totalize its authority, going past the political realm to cement itself in the cultural and spiritual consciousness of China’s people.

China’s tight surveillance of its religious minorities will continue and expand under Xi Jinping’s ‘New Era’ agenda. 

The Ongoing Beatdown

Burned Crosses and bibles ( Civil Rights & Livelihood Watch)

Over 4,000 churches have been reportedly demolished and even more sealed off by Chinese authorities who use a combination of technicalities to justify their actions. Some are deemed ‘illegal gathering points;’ others are claimed to not be compliant with fire safety standards.

One of China’s largest unofficial churches, called Zion Church, was forced to close down in Sep 2018, though the church had been on the CCP’s hit list since April, when church leadership refused the CCP’s request to install surveillance cameras, equipped with facial recognition technology, inside its prayer spaces.

The Beijing Chaoyang district civil affairs bureau issued a notice that the church was not authorized to host mass gatherings and that it was illegally promoting its material. The Zion Church had previously been allowed to operate for years, hosting hundreds of worshippers every week. It is now closed and has not been allowed to re-open.

“There were a lot of police vehicles, and even fire and rescue vehicles and ambulances,” a churchgoer surnamed Yi said. “Their pretext was that we hadn’t registered [with the government-backed Three-Self Patriotic Association of Chinese Protestants].”

“About 200 people came [to resist], but they couldn’t get back inside the church by that time,” he continued. “About 15 people were taken aboard the bus.”

One of Zion’s former attendees told Reuters that, “On this land, the only one we can trust in is God.”

In June 2017, the walls of the ‘Century Building, a century-old church built by Swedish missionaries that houses Jiaozhou Christian House Church, were destroyed by Chinese officials. When one church goers intervened to stop the destruction, he was apprehended and beaten.

These kinds of raids and detention of Christians have been increasing. A study done by China Aid, an independent China monitoring group, showed that arrests and beatings of Christians who speak out against CCP abuses increased from 2016 to 2017. 

“Recent raids by police and other officials on Christian churches and the detention of church members and religious leaders is a clear violation of China’s constitutional protection to the right to religious freedom and international human rights obligations,” France Eve, a researcher with Chinese Human Rights Defenders , told Al Bawaba.

The ultimate purpose of these raids, according to Eve, is to destroy China’s underground churches, also called House Churches. These churches are not allowed to bear any religious symbolic on its exterior, and can range from living rooms inside houses to office spaces that are rented out. The Zion Church was a House Church inside a massive office building in Beijing.

“Church members who tried to defend their houses of worship were detained. Under the Religious Affairs Regulations, amended in Feb 2018,, authorities have a lot of power over ‘managing’ religious buildings. Though we all know they were destroying churches before the regulations came into effect, the amended regulations essentially retroactively provide legal cover for what officials had been doing before to interfere in religious practice,” she adds.

Many of the churches that are targeted are ‘house churches,’ which operate independently from state-backed religious authorities, and are thus out of cleric reach for the CCP.

But state-backed churches have been the object of a slightly different form of crackdown: their public religious symbols are being dismantled and destroyed and their congregations are being monitored.

A church associated with China’s CCP-backed protestant Three Self Patriotic Movement was forced to install surveillance cameras in its worship halls.

According to the Chinese Civil Rights & Livelihood Watch, “before installing the cameras, the authorities first conducted an investigation to find out whether the church had resisted the government’s forcible demolition of crosses in the province two years ago. If the church ever put up a protest, the government would increase manpower to forcibly install surveillance cameras. If the church refused, the government would impose it by setting up security guards while installing cameras.”

According to China Aid, “Throughout July and August [2017], many local governments across Jiangxi province ordered the forcible demolition of crosses and church walls. A variety of evidence amply proves that this is a provincial-government-backed campaign.”

China Aid argues that these signs point to a CCP-orchestrated effort to Sinicize religion in China.

Parallel Church Authorities

The CCP’s tumultuous relationship with Christianity started when the party first took control of China in 1949.

A few years later in 1951, the CCP announced the establishment of a state-controlled protestant organization called the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. Then in 1957, the CCP launched its own Catholic clergy to rival the Vatican for control of China’s Catholic population and called it the Catholic Patriotic Association.

Until Sept 2018, they were outcasts in the global Christian community, seen merely as state agents. But a recent Vatican deal has actually legitimized the Catholic organization to some extent.

Both CCP-backed groups work to carry out the socio-political agenda of the CCP, emphasizing worshippers’ duties to China comes first. The creation of the Catholic Patriotic Association enraged the Vatican at the time: Pope Pius XII penned a decree aimed against China in 1958, dencouncing the organization.

“We had the pleasure of establishing the hierarchy in China and saw yet wider paths opening up for the spread of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ,” the Pope writes.

But “alas, after a few years the sky was overcast by storm clouds” of Communism, of CCP setting up a new, rival Catholic organization under the state. “For by particularly subtle activity an association has been created among you to which has been attached the title of “patriotic,” and Catholics are being forced by every means to take part in it,” it continues.

The Pope lashes out against the religious organizations use of the word “Patriot,” which he claims disguises a “violence and oppression.”

After the letter, the Vatican expelled China’s state-backed bishops and refused to recognize their religious authority. The CCP, in response, refused to grant the Vatican’s bishops working authority in China.

However, in Sep 2018, the Vatican and the CCP-backed Catholic Patriotic Association announced a compromise, where seven state-backed bishops would be recognized by the Vatican, while Vatican-appointed bishops in China would be handed symbolic roles that take them out of the actual administration of Catholicism.

The deal enraged many Catholic leaders, including one Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former bishop of Hong Kong. In a facebook post, Zen wrote:

“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 they are doing in recent years and months.”

In essence, the deal cedes the Vatican’s authority of China’s Catholic churches to the CCP. 

The CCP’s Dream of Control

The interior of a state-backed Church (Wikipedia Commons)

The move to create state-backed religious organizations and destroy independently operating churches all relate to the CCP’s ongoing mission of control.

“Religions in China must be Chinese in orientation and provide active guidance to religions so that they can adapt themselves to the socialist society,” a Chinese religious affairs report declared in April, concisely summing up the state’s position towards religion.

In one particularly dramatic showcase of this thinking, Buddhist monks raised the red flag of China over the ancient Shaolin Temple’ the first time that had ever happened. The event was intended to show the monks’ ‘patriotism’ to China, but looks more to embody the CCP’s attempt to replace deities at the center of worshippers’ prayers.

In Xinjiang, China, the CCP is exerting control over millions of Uyghur and Kazakh Muslims by shipping them to concentration camps that are widely referred to as ‘detention and emergency education camps.’

On top of that Uyghurs report a level of unprecedented and sustained surveillance over their daily lives. Their eating and drinking habits are tracked, as are their mobile phones and conversations. Their public movements are mapped, their purchases recorded, and their family members interrogated. They are assigned to spy on each other in a system called ‘Double-household management,’ and they cannot communicate with family members outside the country. Tens of Muslims have died while in the CCP’s custody, while others report they are being tortured in the camps.

Though the international community has begun to speak out about these atrocities, China has carried on and even expanded its surveillance and detention operations.

China has been taking a less militaristic approach to its Christian population for a few reasons.

First, its Christian population is more integrated and wealthy than its Muslim minority, who mostly reside in rural areas of China’s remote northwestern regions. Christians live in and near China’s coastal cities, and are a rapidly growing sector the population: they now number around 60 million according to independent estimates.

Second, China has a centuries-long relationship with international Christian bodies and missionaries, and has sought to co-opt them when they can under the guise of patriotism: this strategy has worked to some extent, as China’s Christian population is split between the independendent house churches and the state-backed churches.

While China is looking to modernize its economy and become the world’s leader in AI, it is perfecting that technology by spying on its own people and creating a surveillance state from which there is little escape.

Formlery tolerated ‘Church Houses,’ which used to be sacred sanctuaries away from the state are its latest casualty.

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