House church believers from Shandong share their experience of a perilous trip to the Uyghur region to check on how fellow religionists practice their faith.
The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, notorious for the suppression of the ethnic Muslim population, is also a dangerous place for anyone religious. Like in the rest of China, house church Christians in the far western region of China are also strictly controlled. This is what a group of Christians from the eastern province of Shandong learned when they visited Xinjiang last October. They shared their impressions with Bitter Winter.
Talking about faith is taboo
As soon as the visitors entered Xinjiang, they felt that the general atmosphere was extremely tense. “Fully-armed police were everywhere, with security checkpoints every few meters. Surveillance cameras and monitoring facilities were all over the place. Everything people do is controlled by the government. I took a photo at a scenic spot and soon, a police officer forced me to delete the photo,” one of the visiting Christians remembered.
If four or five people are chatting on the street, the police will come to question them about what they are doing, and then force them to disperse. “While we were discussing faith in a public space, a local child next to us kept reminding us not to talk about such things,” the Christian added.
On a Sunday, they passed by a Three-Self church and discovered police cars parked in front of the entrance and numerous officers keeping guard. Each person who wanted to get inside was required to show their ID card and undergo an inspection.
A dangerous visit
The local believers said that the situation for Christians in Xinjiang is awful. “Why did you come? Do you have a death wish?” they asked the visitors.
“They said that the government can detain Christians without any reason and that some people who had been arrested haven’t been heard from since. They lamented how terrifying their life is,” one of the visiting Christians told Bitter Winter.
The Shandong Christians didn’t dare to contact local believers by phone because all phone calls are monitored. They feared that if they made the slightest mistake, their fellow Christians would be implicated. One of the local Christians recounted how he once mentioned the Chinese word for “God” (Shàngdì) on the phone, and the call was cut off shortly afterward. To arrange meetings, they usually speak in code on the phone, like “Let’s go out to eat some lamb.”
According to a local Christian, some Three-Self church pastors have been arrested and sent to transformation through education camps, with no information on when they will be released.
Not safe to hold religious gatherings
Local Christians said that it isn’t safe to hold gatherings at home. A local woman who used to host meetings in her apartment stopped doing so in fear of persecution. She added that due to the strict surveillance and regular crackdowns on places of worship, many house churches are also unable to hold gatherings regularly.
Surveillance cameras are installed in practically every residential community; and to enter, everyone must swipe an electronic card. A display screen shows the number of people that have come for a visit to each apartment. Believers are usually holding gatherings in the early morning hours, around 5 a.m., before community staff start their work. This adverse situation has resulted in many believers having no one to minister them; proselytization is even more difficult.
Community management staff also go door to door to investigate residents’ religious beliefs. Those that are registered as religious are required to go to the community office once a week to study national policies and “patriotic knowledge.”
To avoid being spotted by the authorities during the visit, the Christians rented two traditional nomadic dwelling tents, the yurts, at a tourist attraction site, where they spent the whole day talking, one of them keeping watch outside at all times.
On one of the visit days, the Christians rented a tourist bus to hold a meeting in, driven to a sparsely populated area. The driver, who wasn’t a Christian, left the bus to keep watch for them.