Chinese Christian churches face new threats as state religious code is revised

In this image taken from a video shot on Jan. 9, 2018, by China Aid and provided to the Associated Press, people in hard hats stand amid the remains of the Golden Lampstand Church in Linfen in northern China's Shanxi province. (China Aid via AP) In this image taken from a video shot on Jan. 9, 2018, by China Aid and provided to the Associated Press, people in hard hats stand amid the remains of the Golden Lampstand Church in Linfen in northern China's Shanxi province. (China Aid via AP)

Shocking images of a church dynamited by government officials in China, the second to be demolished in recent weeks, may foretell a deeper crisis for Christianity in China today.

Chinese military police detonated explosives in an underground worship hall to bring down the Golden Lampstand Church, a non-state-affiliated church in the northern province of Shanxi, on Jan. 9, according to China Aid, a Texas-based Christian advocacy group. According to several media reports, church leaders have been detained,and attempts by America to reach them for comment have been unsuccessful.

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The destruction of the church, where more than 50,000 Christians reportedly worshiped, and the Dec. 27 demolition of a Catholic village church in Huyi, in the separate province of Shaanxi, are feared by many Christians as signs of a nationwide drive to tighten state control over ecclesial life in China.

The state-run Global Times newspaper said that the gigantic Golden Lampstand Church was “secretly built” in violation of building codes and demolished as part of a citywide campaign “to remove illegal buildings.” It added that eight members of the church had been jailed in 2009 for "illegally occupying farmland" and “disturbing traffic order.”

Shocking images of a church dynamited by government officials in China, the second to be demolished in recent weeks, may foretell a deeper crisis for Christianity in China today.

China mandates that all churches register into a state system, but many refuse to do so, fearing state control. Local authorities often crack down on unregistered churches under the pretext of land, building or financial violations.

Many Chinese Christians connect the demolition of the two churches to a revised set of “Regulations on Religious Affairs,” set to come into effect on Feb. 1 and fear the coming rules have emboldened officials to "act tough." The new regulations are part of President Xi Jinping’s broader campaign to shore up national security and resist what it sees as the “foreign infiltration” of religions in China.

Xu Yonghai, the leader of an unregistered “house” church in Beijing, said he is bracing for more state harassment. Mr. Xu and two other members of the Holy Love Christian Fellowship were sentenced to two years of hard labor in 1994 for allegedly “insulting” the government in an essay that had described the difficulties churches face in China. He was jailed again for two years in 2003 for “endangering state security” by documenting the destruction of house churches in Hangzhou’s Xiaoshan district. And in early 2014, 13 members of Mr. Xu’s church, usually attended by less than 20 people, were detained for a month after they tried 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,” he said. “We Christians have to be prepared to follow in our predecessors’ footsteps of the 1950s,” alluding to 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. They had to join state-sanctioned “patriotic” churches or face prosecutions.

China’s already-tight control over churches will be strengthened by the new “Regulations on Religious Affairs,” said several experts on Christianity in China. The regulations say that religious groups should “practice the core socialist values” and must not “endanger national security” or harm state interests.

Under the new regulations, lower-level officials can oversee the activities of China’s religious communities—a move expected to lead to intensified harassment of Christians and churches.

Amnesty International has described the new rules as “draconian” and warned that officials may ramp up the persecution of those practicing their religious beliefs outside of officially sanctioned organizations or churches. The human rights advocates expect the banning of certain religious activities and financial penalties on religious organizations.

Under the new regulations, lower-level officials can oversee the activities of China’s religious communities—a move expected to lead to intensified harassment of Christians and churches—and large fines can be imposed on unsanctioned activities. For example, organizers of unapproved overseas trips for believers to attend conferences, or for Catholics to attend papal Masses, could be fined up to $30,000.

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, Mr. Xi told a party conference in 2015 that 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.”

Professor Ying Fuk Tsang, director of the divinity school at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the government is bolstering 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 the Pew Research Center. Based on these figures, Professor Yang Fenggang, director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University, estimated that there are now more than 100 million Protestants and nearly 12 million Catholics in China. He projected that by 2030, the total Christian population, including both Protestants and Catholics, could exceed 247 million, making it one of the largest in the world. (Author Ian Johnson estimates the number of Catholics as closer to 10 million in a recent report in America.)

Mr. Yang saw the demolition of the Golden Lampstand Church as signaling a new round of persecution against unregistered churches. A similar campaign that started in 2014 in Zhejiang Province led to the removal of at least 1,200 crosses from spires of mainly state-approved churches. The campaign to take down crosses led to many clashes, and a number of church leaders and believers were detained or jailed. Pastor Bao Guohua and his wife Xing Wengxiang, who opposed the removal of crosses, were sentenced to 14 years’ and 12 years’ imprisonment in February 2016, according to Amnesty International.

But Mr. Yang said the revised religious regulations will face strong resistance from China’s Christian community, and they may not be effectively implemented because enforcement would demand a huge amount of government resources.

Mr. Xu said previous jail terms have not dampened his faith, and neither will the new rules. “We can survive in any situation,” he said. “After each crackdown, people follow Jesus even more fervently…. Real Christians should follow the path of the cross.”

Another house church elder in Beijing, who asked to remain anonymous, said political regimes in history have never managed to destroy churches completely.

“Throughout the past 2,000 years, even though many empires have fallen, the only thing that hasn’t perished is the church,” he said. “How can [the eradication of churches] be possible? The authorities are not God.”

When Chinese churches have been forcibly closed, Christians continued to meet in small groups, he said.

“They can destroy physical churches but more ‘invisible’ churches will emerge,” he said. “You close one and it turns into 50.

“The more you crackdown, the more they flourish,” he said. "The church is a mystery.”

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