China’s government is burning Bibles, destroying crosses, shutting churches, and ordering Christians to sign papers renouncing their faith, the Associated Press reported, citing pastors and a group that monitors religion in China.
The crackdown is related to an effort to “Sinicize” — or refashion as Chinese — religion by enforcing loyalty to the atheist Communist Party and getting rid of challenges to its authority over people’s lives, the outlet said.
Bob Fu of the U.S.-based group China Aid, said the recent shuttering of churches in central Henan province and a well-known house church in Beijing equates to a “significant escalation” of the crackdown, the AP reported.
“The international community should be alarmed and outraged for this blatant violation of freedom of religion and belief,” Fu wrote in an email to the outlet.
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Under President Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, religious believers are seeing their freedoms shrink dramatically even as the country undergoes a religious revival. Experts and activists say that as he consolidates his power, Xi is waging the most severe systematic suppression of Christianity in the country since religious freedom was written into the Chinese constitution in 1982.
Fu also provided video footage of what appeared to be piles of burning Bibles and forms stating that the signatories had renounced their Christian faith. He said that marked the first time since Mao’s radical 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution that Christians had been compelled to make such declarations, under pain of expulsion from school and the loss of welfare benefits.
A Christian pastor in the Henan city of Nanyang said crosses, Bibles, and furniture were burned during a Sept. 5 raid on his church, the outlet reported. The pastor — who didn't want to be identified over safety concerns — said several people entered the church when its doors opened at 5 a.m. and began removing items.
The pastor told the AP that local authorities demanded the church “reform” itself, but no agreement had been reached or official documents released. Chinese law dictates that believers can worship only in congregations registered with authorities, the outlet said, but millions nevertheless belong to underground or house churches that resist the government.
This photo taken on May 24, 2015, shows worshipers reading from the Bible as they celebrate the Feast of the Ascension at the 'underground' Zhongxin Bridge Catholic Church in Tianjin, which is 68 miles from Beijing and thought to have up to 100,000 Catholics. Each Sunday, hundreds pack the dilapidated building, some sitting on the floor or standing outside, straining to hear the bishop's sermon over the rumble of passing trucks. (GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)
What did a Chinese official have to say?
A Nanyang city government official disputed the account and said authorities respected religious freedom, the AP reported.
What happened at a prominent house church?
Zion Church in Beijing — known as the largest house church in the capital, with six branches — was shut Sunday by about 60 government workers, the church’s pastor, Ezra Jin Mingri, told the outlet Monday.
Officials declared gatherings illegal and sealed off church properties, Jin told the AP, adding that his personal assets were frozen in an apparent attempt to force him to comply with government demands.
A Sunday notice posted on the website of the Chaoyang district government in Beijing said Zion Church was closed because it failed to register with the government, the outlet reported.
“Churches will continue to develop," Jin told the AP. "Blocking the sites will only intensify conflicts."
A toddler sits in a basket carried on his grandmother's back while she reads the Bible during a mass to celebrate Good Friday ahead of the Easter Sunday, April 6, 2007, at St. Joseph's Church in China's southwestern municipality of Chongqing. Chinese Christians are preparing to celebrate Easter amid a nationwide religious renaissance led by an army of young people seeking faith in the modern world, according to religious leaders and academics. (LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images)
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All of China’s officially recognized religions appear to have been affected by the crackdown. In the most extreme example, an estimated 1 million Uighurs and other members of Muslim minority groups in the country’s northwest have been arbitrarily detained in indoctrination camps where they are forced to denounce Islam and profess loyalty to the Communist Party.
The government says it is taking necessary measures to eliminate extremism, but denies setting up the camps.
China has an estimated 38 million Protestants, and experts have predicted that the country will have the world’s largest Christian population in a few decades.