Churches around the world are staying in contact online during the COVID-19 pandemic, but such an action remains illegal in China.
The watchdog Bitter Winter reported April 5 that very few organizations, and “only those that hold state-issued licenses,” can stream religious services online in China.
“We can’t get together because of the pandemic,” an underground house church pastor in the province of Jiangxi told Bitter Winter.
The pastor tried to stream a sermon Feb. 9 through an app, but was stopped.
“Our first and only online gathering was blocked by the government soon after it started,” the preacher said.
That same day, another house church pastor, in the province of Shandong, also tried to stream online services.
“The meeting was stopped less than 20 minutes after the start,” Bitter Winter reported.
A 2018 Chinese law bans streaming services.
“No organizations or individuals will be allowed to live-stream or broadcast religious activities, including praying, burning incense, ordinations, scripture chanting, holding Mass, worshipping or receiving baptism online in the form of text, photo, audio or video,” the law says.
On Feb. 23, the government-approved Two Chinese Christian Councils of Shandong Province issued a notice “demanding all churches in the province to stop live-streaming their services immediately,” Bitter Winter reported.
On Feb. 28, the United Front Work Department of the Nanhu district in Jiaxing, a government organization in Zhejiang province, said it would investigate all online activities by state-approved churches.
Churches in China must register with the government and join either the Three-Self Patriotic Movement or the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. But because these state-approved churches face severe restrictions, millions of Christians worship in illegal underground churches.
Day-to-day online activities by Christians also are monitored.
Members of a Three-Self church in the province of Henan received a notice from their pastor in January demanding they dissolve their groups on We Chat, a social media app. In February, a village official forced a Christian resident to “change his We Chat account profile picture” because it contained an image of a cross, Bitter Winter reported.
Churches and their members are prohibited from saying anything negative about the government or spreading information about the pandemic that isn't government-approved.
“The Public Security Bureau has information on all members of every We Chat group, and network inspections are carried out, especially strict during the pandemic,” a Three-Self pastor from Shandong told Bitter Winter.
Persecution has worsened during the pandemic.
“Encouraged by the government, many factories and public venues have been re-opened, but religious venues are still barred,” a Three-Self believer from Henan province said. “Religious meetings are forbidden, and all channels of religious communication are blocked.”
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Photo courtesy: ©Liam Read/Unsplash
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.