Tomorrow (5 February), billions of people across China will celebrate Chinese New Year. Lanterns, dumplings and celebrations will herald the year of the pig – a year of wealth and fortune. But for Christians in China, the New Year will bring great scrutiny and persecution.
According to Open Doors, in 2018, 20 million Christians in China experienced persecution. The charity now puts the figure at 50 million – half of all Christians in China.
China has jumped 16 places on the Open Doors World Watch List – the ranking of the top 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. It moved up from number 43 to 27, after China introduced new religious affairs regulations that began to be enforced at the beginning of March 2018.
The Chinese government is cracking down on Christians and other religious minorities, aiming for the ‘sinicization’ of religion – making it fit smoothly with the Communist line and increasing loyalty to President Xi Jinping’s ideology. There are plans to ‘contextualise’ the Bible to fit with Chinese culture. Some churches have been told to fly the Chinese flag higher than the cross and to sing the national anthem before services.
Open Doors’ Head of Advocacy, Zoe Smith, said, “The increase in persecution of religious groups in China – particularly the Christians and the Uighur Muslims – is seriously concerning. The current climate is so severe that some older Chinese pastors have shared with Open Doors their worry that persecution in China will soon be comparable to that suffered under Chairman Mao.”
Outspoken and influential churches are bearing the brunt of the revised regulations, particularly in Henan and Zhejiang provinces (the birthplace of major house church networks), as an example to the rest of the country.
Open Doors has received reports from inside China that landlords are being pressured by local authorities to terminate rental contracts with churches. Some are being fined crippling amounts for petty offences such as inadequate fire safety equipment. There are strict guidelines for crosses displayed on churches. Many local authorities have in the past turned a blind eye to these regulations but are now enforcing them harshly.
Authorities have increased harassment of pastors making once normal activity more difficult. Many are worried about the effect it will have on their congregation. Churches have been raided, their Bibles and Christian material confiscated and pulpits defaced. In order to stop a new generation of Christians, children’s church, youth groups and camps are forbidden. Churches have even been ordered to place signs at their entrance forbidding anyone under 18 from entering.
Many churches are defiant in the face of these new regulations. Others are taking precautions; when a church was closed down in western China the members took their meetings to the street, they now meet in local parks and hand out Christian literature after the service. Others are still meeting but have split into multiple smaller gatherings. One group of Christians in a major city left to go back to their respective home villages where they are now starting churches.
There is fear in China that the laws may still be tightened or enforcement may become more severe. Christian leaders have worked hard to ensure that Christians are law-abiding citizens who pray for their country and its leaders. If religion is curbed to the extent that it compromises the Bible’s teaching, Christians will have to make a difficult choice, whether they follow God’s law or Xi Jinping’s. The church in China is facing uncertain times. Many fear it could once again be driven underground.
China is number 27 on the Open Doors World Watch List.