August 12, 2020 (Morning Star News) – An 84-year-old Christian in Shanxi Province, China was among people in at least five provinces ordered to remove Christian imagery from their homes and replace them with pictures of President Xi Jinping, religious rights magazine Bitter Winter reported.
“The township [Chinese Communist] Party [CCP] secretary asked me to take down and throw away the cross and told me to pray to Xi Jinping from then on,” the unidentified Christian told Bitter Winter. “Xi Jinping is a man, not God. I feel saddened for the cross being taken down, but there is nothing I can do.”
That was in June. Since May, CCP officials in Shanxi, Henan, Jiangxi, Shandong and other provinces have threatened to withdraw the social welfare benefits poor people rely on for food, especially during the COVID-19 epidemic, if they refuse to replace Christian imagery with that of Xi, the magazine reported.
“In June, a village official in Lin County, administered by the prefecture-level city of Lüliang in the northern province of Shanxi, repeatedly notified villagers through social media to remove all religious symbols from their homes,” Bitter Winter reported. “He stated that the cross symbolized heterodox teachings, which should be purged as per orders from higher authorities. If not, they will be held criminally accountable. The official stressed that impoverished households must replace the symbols with images of Xi Jinping.”
Officials in Lin County threatened to cancel poverty alleviation allowances if residents refused to discard their faith-based books and other items, according to the magazine, quoting a Christian who said every household was ordered to display portraits of Xi, and that residents were to provide photos of themselves beside them. In June local authorities forcibly replaced a cross in his home with a portrait of Xi.
In the southeastern province of Jiangxi, officials in May tore down crosses and other Christian imagery in the homes of officially recognized Three-Self Church members in the villages of Qiaoshe and Xixia, Changyi township, which is administered by the provincial capital of Nanchang.
“The officials told the believers that they were implementing state-issued orders,” Bitter Winterstated. “Though reluctant, the impoverished Christians had to remove the symbols since the officials threatened to cancel their subsistence allowance if they disobeyed. People must follow the party that gives them money, not God, the officials claimed.”
A low-income Christian on welfare in Qiaoshe said that officials told him that since he believed in God, he should ask Him for food instead of living off the CCP, according to the magazine.
The measures appear to be part of a stepped-up campaign against groups deemed a threat to the rule of the CCP since Xi became president in 2013. The previous year, the party had formulated five new “black categories” of groups to be quelled – human rights lawyers, underground religious bodies such as house churches, dissidents, commentators on the Internet and disadvantaged social groups.
Willy Wo-Lap Lam, Hong Kong-based author of “The Fight for China’s Future,” noted in a recent address at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club that Xi has put churches under pressure, including ubiquitous surveillance, because he feels threatened that Christians will outnumber party members within 15 years.
“Whatever the churches might be doing, they are recorded, and their activities are being made known to the authorities,” Lam said. “But nonetheless, the good news is that these several million Christians have been able to maintain a nationwide organization, and if the opportunity arises, they can be very forthcoming regarding the freedom of expression, the freedom of religion, and they are willing to risk their personal freedom to seek a world where religion can be observed freely.”
In Hengyang, Hunan Province, authorities on Aug. 3 sentenced a Christian to 10 days in administrative detention for “illegal evangelism,” according to advocacy group China Aid Association.
Chen Wensheng was observed sharing his faith on a street in Hengyang before authorities took him into custody. He had displayed a wooden cross with “Glory to our Savior” and “Repent and be saved by faith alone” written on it, according to China Aid.
“Chen also urged police officers to believe in Jesus,” the group reported. “The cross was confiscated at the police station.”
New religious regulations that went into effect on Feb. 1 give local officials power to close unregistered house churches and monitor the legally recognized Three-Self Patriotic Movement congregations.
The multiple cameras at Three-Self churches are connected to public security organs so that churches failing to follow the new, more restrictive regulations can be closed. Facial recognition technology can be used to identify people by means of 176 million CCTV cameras that China has installed in public places throughout the country, with 450 million such cameras expected to be operational by the end of this year.
High-tech surveillance has become an essential tool for authorities to regulate and suppress religious belief, Bitter Winter reported.
“Unlike house [unregistered] churches, members of Three-Self churches are seemingly allowed to hold religious gatherings,” the group noted. “In reality, though, intrusive surveillance systems, such as the Sharp Eyes Project, have long been introduced into state-run churches, with cameras installed even in washrooms of some places of worship, to ensure comprehensive monitoring.”
Of the millions of CCTV cameras, China has installed at least 20 million with advanced facial recognition software to help in the effort to establish its “social credit system” for monitoring perceived loyalty and dissent, according to Lam.
Surveillance can lead to church closures. In Zhengzhou, capital of Henan Province, county officials recently implemented a system of “standardized assessment of religious venues” for state-approved places of worship. Among 50 possible violations: clergy members leaving the county without prior approval (a three-point demerit); not raising the national flag (five points); or failure to proactively give ‘sinicized’ sermons – preaching that elevates preservation of communist China as the ultimate goal (eight points).
“Each venue with a score under 70 points (out of 100) will be considered a “substandard” and can be closed down,” Bitter Winter reported. “Similar assessment practices, reminiscent of the infamous social credit system, have been implemented at some churches in other places and are becoming more and more prevalent in the country.”
The U.S. State Department on Dec. 10, 2018 included China among 10 countries designated as Countries of Particular Concern for severe religious rights violations.
China ranked 23rd on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2020 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian, up from 27th the previous year.
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