To prevent members of state-run churches from joining unregistered places of worship, the government implements new repressive measures to control them.
by Han Sheng
In August, the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau of Gushi county in the central province of Henan issued a notice encouraging people to collect photos, videos, audio recordings, and other materials and report on “illegal religious activity venues.” An award of 500 RMB (about $ 70) is offered for each tipoff.
As per the notice, all places of worship that don’t have registration certificates and are not approved by religious affairs authorities are “illegal religious activity venues.” The document also claims that over the nearly five months that religious venues have been closed due to the coronavirus outbreak, some people of faith were “cheated and lured by religious organizations into private meeting venues” to attend “illegal religious activities,” “causing a great negative impact on security and stability in the field of religion.” Therefore, all such illegal activities in the county should be investigated and suppressed.
Almost immediately after the campaign was launched, the landlord of a house church refused to rent her property to the congregation. “Encouraged by the government propaganda, the landlord drove us away, refusing to rent us her property,” a church member said. “She explained that she didn’t want to suffer consequences if our venue was discovered. The CCP will not stop until it eliminates all religious beliefs.”
The congregation used to belong to a registered Three-Self church but was shut down last year to reduce the number of religious venues. Believers were once again left with no place to gather.
In July, banners and slogans promoting “proactive reporting on illegal religious activities” were displayed in other Henan locations: in Mengzhou, Jiyuan, Shangqiu, and other cities. Propaganda activities were organized to inform residents that any gathering of three to five believers should be reported immediately.
“The government exerts strict control not only to curb the development of Three-Self churches but also ban house churches, for fear that they will help topple the regime,” a local government employee explained.
Three-Self churches across China are encouraged to report on private meeting venues. According to a Three-Self preacher from Dezhou city in the eastern province of Shandong, the local government issued a notice demanding Three-Self believers to surveil and report on gatherings of unregistered churches and groups labeled as xie jiao.
In the central province of Hubei, severely affected by the coronavirus outbreak and recent heavy floods, Three-Self believers are demanded to report on unapproved religious venues. In June, 20 clergy members from Three-Self churches were convened for a meeting about informing on unregistered places of worship. Even gatherings of three or five believers must be reported, they were told.
“The government asks us to donate to it, disregarding that our church has been closed for months,” one of the meeting attendants said indignantly. “Officials told us that since we don’t have money to give to the government, we should encourage believers to spy on unregistered and xie jiao venues and collect rewards for this. We would get enough money after several such reports, they said. We do know who attends house churches, but we won’t do things against our conscience. Everyone must have the right to practice their faith.”