Chinese province’s new ‘Smart Religion' app makes Christians register to attend worship services

A Chinese Catholic woman prays at the government-sanctioned Xishiku Catholic Church on August 14, 2014, in Beijing, China.
A Chinese Catholic woman prays at the government-sanctioned Xishiku Catholic Church on August 14, 2014, in Beijing, China. | Getty Images/Kevin Frayer

Christians in China's populous Henan province are now reportedly required to register on a government app to attend worship services and must make online reservations before taking part in worship, according to a report from a U.S.-based human rights group.

The app, called "Smart Religion" and developed by the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Commission of Henan Province, asks believers to give personal information, including their name, phone number, government ID number, permanent residence, occupation and date of birth to receive approval to attend a service, ChinaAid reported this week.

It's a requirement not only for churches but also mosques and Buddhist temples, states the group, which documents religious persecution in China and supports Chinese prisoners of conscience.

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Henan has one of the largest Christian populations in China. Local Christians say the cumbersome application procedures have reduced the number of believers attending churches. According to the Texas-based nongovernmental organization, many elderly people and those less tech-savvy may find it challenging to access the app. However, officials say such people will be assisted.

Once allowed into a place of worship, believers must also have their temperature taken, the group said, commenting that the app may be related in some way to COVID-19 restrictions.

ChinaAid contends these management measures were not implemented to protect people's religious rights but rather as a means to achieve political purposes.

"This so-called 'Smart Religion' online application has been officially launched in some parts of Henan. In August 2022, the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau of Puyang County in Henan and the Henan Billion Second Electronic Technology Co., Ltd. signed a project contract for the 'Construction of an Independent Command Platform for the Management of Smart Religion,'" China Aid Special Correspondent Gao Zhensaithe wrote.

"According to the official website of the Ministry of Ethnic and Religious Affairs of China, as early as July 2020, at the symposium on the construction of a religious big data management platform held in Henan, several platform projects, such as the construction of 'Smart Religion,' were inspected. The digital platform is the foundation of the religious affairs management improvement project, and the China Construction Bank of the Henan Branch provided technical support."

China only recognizes five religious groups that submit to the government's influence. Christians from unregistered churches bear the brunt of the persecution.

In a report released last month, ChinaAid said the Chinese Communist Party intensified the persecution of churches and Christians leading up to the 20th Party Congress in 2022.

"Fraud" charges being brought against house church pastors and leaders in mainland China had increased, with the traditional practice of tithing and offering in churches being seen as an illegal activity, the report said.

The authorities allegedly used the updated "Measures for the Financial Management of Religious Activity Venues," implemented last June, to fabricate charges against house churches.

"We are gravely concerned about how the Communist regime also treats the State-sanctioned church," ChinaAid's President and Founder Bob Fu said in a statement. "Previously, they asked for sole allegiance to the Communist Party, but since the 20th National Party Congress, they shifted their emphasis to aligning with Xi Jinping."

"Their goal," he added, "is not only to curate a 'socialist-friendly' church; they hope to erase it. The international community needs to know about these trends and developments as China continues to rise on the global stage."

The Chinese Communist Party remains focused on religious sinicization.

"Before, during, and after the opening of the Congress, China's state-run religious groups lavished compliments and praise on Xi with more extravagant words and phrases than China's state-run media, showing that religious Sinicization is evolving from supporting the CCP to worship and allegiance to Xi Jinping," the report added.

The Chinese government also implemented strict regulations against religious content on the internet, which ChinaAid contends was aimed at "removing Christianity from cyberspace." The group stresses that Christians have faced "unprecedented" online censorship since the implementation of the "Administrative Measures for Internet Religious Information and Services" in 2022.

China is ranked as the 16th worst country when it comes to Christian persecution, according to the 2023 Open Doors World Watch List. 

"Tightening restrictions and increasing surveillance are putting Christians in China under intensifying pressure, as the Communist Party seeks to limits all threats to its power," Open Doors, which monitors persecution in over 60 countries, states in a factsheet. 

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