A cross engulfed in fire burns on top of a Christian church in southern China. In another city, worshippers are pushed to the floor by police who have arrived to shut down a service. Plaster goes flying as a group of men tear down a wooden alter. A huge crane removes a cross from a 10-storey building. Wooden church benches are loaded onto a truck and taken away as dozens of worshippers look on. A church service continues in the dark after the power is turned off.
These are some of the scenes contained in video footage which Christian pastors say is evidence of the Chinese government’s latest crackdown on their religion, The Australian Financial Review reports. Authorities have been closing down hundreds of so-called “unregistered” churches throughout the country over the last two months.
Pastors say in the past they were free to practise their religion as long as they did not interfere in China’s politics or criticise the ruling Communist Party, whose members are expected to be atheists. There are an estimated 60 million Christians in China, with the religion flourishing via so-called “house” churches, which are not officially mandated by the government.
But China’s leadership is imposing greater restrictions on Christianity, Islam and to a lesser extent Buddhism as it tightens its grip on every aspect of society to abolish any potential threat to the Party. The mass detention of as many as 1 million Uighur Muslim minorities in the country’s remote northwest has attracted widespread international condemnation. But other religious minorities – including the nation’s 10 million Hui Muslims as well as Christians – are increasingly finding it harder to practise their faith without interference.
“The closures happened very quickly,” one pastor in China’s Henan province told The Australian Financial Review. “The authorities asked to remove all the belongings on the second day. The church was closed on the third day. It was very abrupt. Desks, air conditioners, appliances, all removed.”
The pastor, whose name has not been published to protect him from possible persecution from local authorities, has been preaching since 2012 but in August this year he was asked to take an exam and then told he was not qualified. “Only students who graduated from a religious academy can preach,” he said. Pastors says hundreds of Protestant and Catholic churches have been closed since July.
The crackdown comes as the Vatican and Beijing signed a provisional agreement last month that gives the Pope a say in the appointment of bishops in China. Catholic bishops from China have been allowed to attend a major Vatican meeting known as a synod, starting this week, for the first time but human rights groups have attacked the Vatican deal as a betrayal of the Christians they say are persecuted in China.The deal with the Vatican is also seen as a way for Beijing to exert greater control over Christianity, which has flourished among the middle class in big cities.
Pastors said local authorities told them they had been instructed to close their churches to stop “the spread of a cult”. Many of the congregations are held in private homes. CCTV cameras have also been installed in “official” churches around the country in order for local authorities to keep an eye on congregations.
Another pastor from China’s Christian heartland, Henan province, said a quarter of the churches in his area in the north of the city of Kaifeng, have been shut down since late August. At times, the confrontations with worshippers and police have become violent. The video footage shows one man slapping a woman, who was filming officials clearing out a church in Tanghe county, also in Henan province, on her mobile phone.
Bob Fu, a Chinese American Christian pastor, who founded China Aid which gives legal aid to Christians in China, has compared the crackdown to Nazi Germany’s persecution of the Jews and says it is a “direct violation” of the Chinese constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom. An image posted on his Twitter account this week shows a church congregation following Party officials carrying a Chinese flag down the steps of a church.
“It’s an incredible betrayal. The consequences will be tragic and long-lasting, not only for the church in China but for the whole church because it damages the credibility. Maybe that’s why they might keep the agreement secret,” Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former archbishop of Hong Kong, told Reuters when asked about Vatican deal.