Crosses were removed from over 250 state-sanctioned churches in China’s Anhui province between January and April as the Communist Party’s years-long crackdown on church crosses continues, according to the Italian-based magazine Bitter Winter.
“All Christian symbols are ordered to be removed as part of the government’s crackdown campaign,” a provincial employee from Ma’anshan city told Bitter Winter, a publication produced by the Center for Studies on New Religion which covers human rights issues in China.
The magazine reported on Tuesday that the 250 crosses were removed from churches affiliated with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement in cities that include but are not limited to Lu’an, Ma’anshan, Huaibei and Fuyang.
One of the churches that had its cross removed from outside its building is The Gulou Church in the center of Fuyang city, a Protestant church that dates back over a century.
The church had its cross taken down on April 2 after over 100 congregation members tried to stop authorities from removing the cross from the church the previous day.
One congregation member told the magazine that local officials told the church members that the cross' removal was done in accordance with a national policy requiring the removal of all religious symbols, not just Christianity.
“We support the state and comply with its regulations,” the congregation member was quoted as saying.
“We can have a dialogue with the government if it thinks that we have done something wrong, but they can’t persecute us this way. Officials did not show any documents, fearing that people would implicate them with anything in writing. They only conveyed verbal orders and forced us to obey them.”
In the city of Lu-an, over 183 churches had crosses removed during the first four months of 2020, reports Bitter Winter. The report states that in March, a church leader in the city was threatened with imprisonment and the closure of his church if the church’s cross was not removed.
Bitter Winter posted a video Wednesday showing officials removing a cross in Shu County.
An elder from a Three-Self congregation in Hanshan county told Bitter Winter that there were two government-convened conferences so far in 2020 to discuss the national government’s demand for the removal of religious symbols.
Allegedly, provincial government officials criticized Ma’anshan officials for not removing crosses at a quick enough pace. Since mid-April, 33 churches in the county have reportedly not had their crosses removed.
“The fact that all church crosses in the county have been taken off makes us very sad because the cross [is] the primary symbol of our faith,” the unnamed elder from Hanshan county added. “But we don’t dare to disobey central government orders: little fish don’t eat big fish.”
The magazine also noted that crosses were removed from at least 22 churches affiliated with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement in four different cities last November and December.
China’s crackdown on religion and religious minorities has drawn scrutiny from international actors such as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, rights groups and the U.S. State Department.
In its 2020 annual report, USCIRF noted that not only have authorities removed crosses from churches across the nation but they have also banned youth under the age of 18 from participating in religious services.
Reports have also indicated that authorities have required that some churches remove pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary inside of their buildings and replace them with images of President Xi Jinping.
Past reports have also indicated that some churches have begun replacing the singing of hymns with songs that praise the communist regime.
In September 2018, Chinese Christian activist Bob Fu, founder of China Aid, told members of U.S. Congress that the Chinese government is supervising a five-year plan to make Christianity more compatible with socialism, an effort that includes a “rewrite” of the Bible to make socialist ideas seem more divine.
China ranks as the 23rd worst nation in the world when it comes to Christian persecution, according to Open Doors USA’s 2020 World Watch List. China has been named by the State Department for years as a “country of particular concern” for engaging in systemic and egregious violations of religious freedom.
In April, USCIRF expressed concern about China’s selection to the United Nations Human Rights Council Consultative Group, which is tasked with screening applications and making recommendations for independent U.N. experts.
“The Chinese government is one of the worst abusers of religious freedom and other human rights,” USCIRF Commissioner Gary Bauer, a longtime conservative activist, said in a statement. “The Chinese Communist Party should not have any influence over appointments of the UN Human Rights Council’s independent human rights experts.”