Amid increasing attempts to suppress religious activities, Chinese authorities have detained, fined, and imprisoned Christians for public worship, buying and selling devotionals, and group Bible study.
In late April, a court in Xinjiang convicted five Protestants who attended a Bible study in 2016, charging them with “gathering a crowd to disrupt social order,” Asia News reported. The verdict came with five-year prison sentences for two pastors, and four- and three-year sentences for three others. They plan to appeal.
Earlier in April, authorities raided a Christian concert and arrested those attending. Taiwanese Pastor Xu Rongzhang was singing “Jesus Loves You” when the raid took place, China Aid reported. Before releasing them, officials forced the Christians to say they would not organize large gatherings again and told Xu not to hold any meetings of more than 10 people.
A Chinese court also recently convicted prominent Christian human rights lawyer Li Heping on charges of subverting state power. Judges sentenced Li to three years in prison but suspended the sentence for four years. If he does not reoffend during that time, Li will stay out of prison.
Since 1997, Li has defended dissidents, victims of forced evictions, and members of the banned Falun Gong religious group. Officials detained him and nearly 250 others in 2015, in what Amnesty International condemned as a nationwide crackdown against human rights lawyers and activists. Amnesty said the Communist Party’s official newspaper described it as an attempt to destroy a “major criminal gang.”
Several of those lawyers and activists remain in detention, even though Western governments urged Beijing to release them.
Earlier this year, officials in Xinjiang targeted a network of Christian house churches and arrested more than 80 people. They fined and later released them, according to China Aid.
All these incidents illustrate the worsening persecution of Christians under President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on religious activity and human rights. Critics say he wants to eradicate any potential opposition to the ruling Communist Party.
Because religious freedom in China continued to erode in 2016, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) called on the U.S. State Department to keep China listed as a country of particular concern in its recently released 2017 report.
USCIRF reported China’s government revised regulations to more tightly control religious groups, increased penalties against “illegal” Christian churches and activities, and formally prohibited any religion from harming “national security” concerns.
A campaign to remove crosses from churches has continued, and officials targeted and imprisoned Christians who spoke out against it, including Pastor Bao Guohua and his wife, Xing Wenxiang. Not even members of state-sponsored churches were safe from persecution.
China also continues to suppress other religious groups, including Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and Falun Gong, while continuing to forcibly repatriate North Korean refugees, according to USCIRF.
“It is crucial that the U.S. government not only integrate human rights messaging—including on freedom of religion or belief—across its interactions with China, but also consistently make clear that it opposes Beijing’s overt violations of international human rights standards,” USCIRF said in its report.
Confucius’s hometown, Qufu, knows how to market its most famous native son. Visitors to the city in eastern China’s Shandong province can savor Confucian cuisine, worship at a Confucius temple and follow the family tree of the Kong clan, which claims an unbroken lineage going back some 80 generations to the Great Sage himself. The tourist boom has only intensified as China’s communist leadership embraces homegrown traditions once derided as feudal relics by the party’s revolutionary elders.
Now, the presence of a Christian church near Confucius central is sparking debate as to whether the ancient philosopher — or, more accurately, his descendants — can handle an influx of Western spirituality in a nation yearning for fulfillment. In an online article published late this month, a prominent Confucian scholar protested the expansion of an existing church less than 2 miles from Qufu’s main Confucian temple and kickstarted a campaign against it. Such a church “towering over” the Confucian sanctuary, wrote Zeng Zhenyu, would stir up “intense controversy.” Sure enough, a torrent of digital discourse has ensued in China, with scholars and laymen alike parsing the ancient ideology’s stance towards a diversity of faiths.
“Qufu in China is like Jerusalem and Mecca,” Zeng, a professor at Shandong University’s Advanced Institute for Confucian Studies, tells TIME. “It’s the Chinese people’s spiritual home.” Christian churches, he believes, should be banned from Confucius’s birthplace. “You can build churches in other places,” he says. “But you can’t build them in Qufu, an iconic and holy spiritual place for the Chinese people.” (An ardent Confucian, Zeng also happens to be a member of Shandong province’s communist elite.)
From the beginning of the People’s Republic through the madness of the Cultural Revolution, communist cadres tried to excise religion from Chinese society, destroying places of worship — Confucian temples included — and forcing the faithful to pray in secret. But a loosening of personal freedom in recent years has led to a remarkable religious revival. Indigenous philosophies like Confucianism and Taoism have gained new adherents, while Buddhism, long practiced in China, has also surged. Ancestor worship has returned, with an increasing number of families placing altars in their homes. Even in the nation’s far northwest, ethnic minorities are exploring new strains of Islam, even as the state discourages overt symbols of the faith.
The fastest growing religion in China is believed to be Christianity, which encompasses everything from congregations in state-sanctioned churches to millennial worshippers who believe that the second coming of Jesus is a Chinese woman. Some academics estimate that a nation helmed by an officially atheist party will be home to the world’s largest Christian flock within a generation. The faith’s rapid expansion has catalyzed an official crackdown, with megachurches torn down and pastors of house churches jailed. Unorthodox Christian offshoots — labeled cults by the authorities — have been particular targets.
In some ways, the anti-Christian crusade shares roots with the government’s brutal crackdown on Falun Gong, a spiritual movement based on meditation exercises whose rapid growth in the late 1990s startled the authorities. Any force that mobilizes and unifies so many people could be viewed as a threat to the Communist Party. But Christianity’s foreign antecedents make it even more of a problem religion in China at a time when President Xi Jinping has intensified a campaign against “pernicious” Western influences. In 2014, Chinese authorities announced that they would create a “Chinese Christian Theology [that] should adapt to China’s national condition and integrate with Chinese culture.”
It is a trope in China to note that the nation suffers from a spiritual vacuum, that neither communism nor capitalism has managed to sate Chinese souls. Perhaps aware of this deficit, Xi has promoted Confucianism as a kind of unifying ideology. Academics may disagree over whether Confucianism is really a religion or merely a set of values that has been used for millennia to organize Chinese society. But the state-sanctioned push to popularize it is real. “Our government once said, ‘If people have faith, then our nation will have hope,’ but have we thought about which faith can bring hope to the nation?” asks Chen Ming, the director of the Confucianism Research Center at Capital Normal University. “It’s not a simple question but we can’t solve the problem without Confucianism.”
In 2013, Xi made a pilgrimage to Qufu, just as generations of Chinese imperial leaders once did. The next year, he attended a birthday party for Confucius, who was born in the sixth century B.C. Even though the Chinese President came of age in an era when Chairman Mao urged the youth to eradicate any sign of China’s ancient past, Xi often invokes the country’s glorious civilization in his speeches. “To solve China’s problems, we can only search in the land of China for the ways and means that suit it,” Xi told China’s Politburo. “We need to fully make use of the great wisdom accumulated by the Chinese nation over the last 5,000 years.”
There may also be a political imperative to Xi’s Confucian campaign. After all, the ancient philosopher also served as a political adviser, preaching both personal morality for leaders and public fealty to rulers from the citizenry. Since taking helm of the Communist Party in late 2012, Xi has unleashed an anticorruption campaign that demands of Chinese officials the kind of moral rectitude advocated by the Great Sage. At the same time, Xi has amassed power more quickly than his recent predecessors have. It’s safe to assume that a Confucian compliance with hierarchy fits nicely with Xi’s centralized leadership style.
On Wednesday, in a blunt expression of power, one of Xi’s top aides demanded the “absolute loyalty” of China’s party members. “Party organizations of all levels and all party members should be aligned with the central leadership of the party led by Xi Jinping in actions and thoughts,” said Li Zhanshu, who is the head of the anodyne-sounding but important General Office of the party’s Central Committee, according to China’s state Xinhua news agency.
Meanwhile, back in Qufu, not everyone agrees with Zeng’s effort to cleanse the area of Christian influence. A few years ago, a group of Confucian scholars protested what they said was a plan to renovate the same church in question with soaring Gothic spires and a giant nave. (The revamp never came to pass.) One of the signatories of that campaign was Chen, the neo-Confucian academic from Capital Normal University. This time, though, Chen says that the local pastor has promised to rebuild the church in a local architectural style and to keep the building inconspicuous. “It’s inappropriate to escalate the dispute into a conflict between Confucianism and Christianity, like a clash of civilizations,” he tells TIME. Social harmony is, of course, a very Confucian virtue.
Although the Chinese government has been cracking down on churches and Christians in China, one Chinese Christian says Christians in China are not afraid.
According to Christian Today, Zhang Tan who is a member of Huoshi church in Guiyang, Guizhou province, condemned the government’s decision to ban his church.
In China, religious freedom is limited and all churches are banned except government-sanctioned ones.
Zhang said that he and other Christians do not want to be a part of a church that is associated with the government. “With genuine faith, and as a Three-Self Church in the truest sense, we do not want to participate in political organisations, particularly a political organisation that committed many political mistakes and will not admit it, defiling the sanctity of the Lord’s Church,” he stated.
Zhang added that members of his church are involved in running the “Home of Love,” a place for orphaned children to receive care.
“Why was this church, which provided positive energy to the community, banned by authorities?” Zhang asked.
China is reportedly increasing its crackdown on churches and Christians, but Zhang says, “As a Christian and a member of Huoshi Church, I would say that we do not fear. We accept that God blesses us; we also accept that God allows suffering to happen.”
A house church in China has been told by the Chinese government that it may no longer conduct worship services.
According to Christian Today, the small church of about 50 members in Dazhou, Sichuan province, was told last month that it may no longer rent an apartment where it held religious services.
Li Shengfen, a member of the church, stated: “They looked at our Bibles. After that, in order to understand our church, they looked at our poetry. Because the place where we worship has a cross, a Bible and some scripture on the walls, they looked at it all. I said ‘Right now, is this freedom of religion?’ If we go to the city to meet, many of the Christians are old and some people get carsick. I said, ‘How can you not give us freedom?'”
The Chinese government’s mandate to this house church is part of a larger government crackdown on churches and freedom of religion which has escalated under Chinese President Xi Jinping’s leadership.
Christian Today reports that up to 1,700 churches have been demolished and their large red crosses removed as part of a campaign supposedly meant to expose and remove “illegal structures.”
In addition, many Christians and human rights activists have been jailed for speaking out against this restriction of religious freedom.