China's state-approved churches that were forced to close due to COVID-19 are only permitted to reopen if they praise the Chinese Communist Party in sermons and extol President Xi Jinping, according to a new report.
Religious liberty magazine Bitter Winter reports that the Religious Affairs Bureau of Zhengzhou, the capital of the province of Henan, released in mid-June a list of 42 prerequisites for churches that sought to reopen. Among the requirements, churches were ordered to “intensify patriotic education” and “study China’s religious policies,” Bitter Winter reported.
Additionally, churches were ordered to promote the “four requirements,” a nationwide campaign launched in 2018 to promote the “sinicization” of religion. The campaign involves requiring religious communities to ritually raise the national flag; promoting the Chinese Constitution and laws, core socialist values, and "China’s excellent traditional culture.”
“Instead of a normal sermon, the preacher talked about the patriotism of medical workers during the epidemic, and their sacrifice to the state,” a member of a Three-Self church told Bitter Winter. “These things are important, but political things were discussed for half of the time. Many believers complained afterward.”
Churches that refused to comply with the CCP’s demands were not permitted to reopen. In Henan, one church was not allowed to reopen because officials didn't approve the pastor’s sermons.
“None of the 11 places of worship in our area was approved for reopening,” a deacon in the church told Bitter Winter. “We were busy preparing to meet the requirements for reopening, but the government made things difficult for us in every respect.”
Also in June, the government of Yucheng, a county in the prefecture-level city of Shangqiu in Henan, demanded the preachers of state-run churches praise President Xi for “the right way to lead people in defeating the epidemic” and praise China for its single-party rule. They were also ordered to slander the United States and other countries, the report adds.
“The government said that churches must preach about national affairs if they want to reopen,” a church member in Henan told Bitter Winter. “With Xi Jinping’s speeches as the main content, it’s better for churches not to reopen.”
An elderly believer from Henan said that the Religious Affairs Bureau would ban anyone from preaching if they refuse to cooperate with the new requirements.
“Those preachers who agree to preach politics just want their churches to be reopened as soon as possible,” the believer explained. “But they are secularized instead. They have no way to retreat and become politicized.”
The CCP’s efforts to sinicize Christianity, or bring it under its absolute control are well-documented.
It was previously reported that Communist authorities converted a number of state-approved Three-Self churches into cultural centers promoting Xi's socialist values.
Amid the coronavirus outbreak, poor Christian villagers in several provinces were ordered to renounce their faith and replace displays of Jesus with portraits of Chairman Mao and Xi or risk losing their welfare benefits.
In recent years, hundreds of Christians have also faced arrests, detentions, imprisonments, and church attacks.
In Yugan county, authorities shut down at least 48 Three-Self churches and meeting venues between April 18-30, according to Bitter Winter.
The magazine reported that “countless number of churches” were also ordered to remove their crosses in Jiujiang, Fuzhou, Fengcheng, Shangrao, and a few other cities in the province in April.
Scholars estimate that of China's 60 million or so Christians, about half attend unregistered “house” churches rather than their state-sanctioned counterparts.
Persecution watchdog Open Doors ranks China 23rd on its list of 50 countries where it's most difficult to be a Christian. The organization notes that all churches are perceived as a threat if they become too large, too political, or invite foreign guests.