Persecution is escalating in this eastern province: local officials were preparing for higher-ups’ visits by cracking down on churches and investigating believers.
In September last year, the United Front Work Department (UFWD) launched its first-ever nationwide program to check on the implementation of religious policies in provinces and municipalities across the country. Central government inspection teams visit localities throughout China to make sure that religious persecution is implemented as ordered.
At the beginning of May, an inspection team from the State Administration of Religious Affairs came to the eastern province of Shandong, where in the past year, believers have been dealt severe blows from the government. Based on the so-called “Henan-style” religion persecution model, crosses have been forcibly dismantled from churches, Buddhist statues “sinicized” or destroyed, and Islamic signs removed.
Local governments prepare for inspections
Prior to the arrival of the central government officials, a province-level team had reportedly carried out an investigation in advance, and many places of worship, including government-approved Three-Self churches, received notices of “rectification.”
On February 15, the Religious Affairs Bureau of Zibo city’s Linzi district convened the persons in charge of various Three-Self Church meeting venues, to inform them that the provincial inspection team had commenced their investigations. Aiming to shut down all house churches, local governments were instructed to mobilize the masses to report any functioning private meeting venues. Officials from the Bureau also stated that even the landlords who provide spaces for religious groups would be punished.
An official from one of the townships shared a message on a WeChat group that the provincial inspection team had discovered problems in the area, and he blamed responsibility on lower-level bureaucrats. The message reads: “During inspections, the provincial Party committee’s inspection team discovered that some villages are providing venues free of charge to religious movements and that some villages lease collective places to them. Those that are discovered now will be characterized as having a problematic political stance. The first step in handling this is to relieve the Party branch secretaries from all their posts within the Party. The next step will be to reprimand those responsible in the Party committee and demand accountability from the most responsible comrades. Today, the Propaganda Office is working overtime to further investigate the ownership status of religious venues. Each secretary of the Party general branch is asked to have a responsible attitude toward the Party committee and notify the Party branch secretary of each village. If there is a situation of common places being used [by religious groups], truthfully report it to your superiors and demand the religious groups to move out as soon as possible within a limited time. Now, the attitude toward religion should be harmonious guidance, categorized governance, and long-term restrictions.”
Officials ordered to dismantle all crosses
On April 3, the government of a town in Linzi district under the jurisdiction of Zibo city forcibly dismantled a Three-Self church’s cross on the grounds that “having a cross hanging in the building area is unsightly.”
The same day, the cross was removed from a Three-Self church in Donggaoyao village under the jurisdiction of Linyi city’s Zhuangwu town. The church had spent 130,000 RMB (about 18,000 USD) to install it.
On March 25, the cross of a Three-Self church in Linyi city’s Lanshan district was dismantled overnight because the church was “too close to the village committee and constituted infiltration into Party and government organs.” Some believers said that they already received a verbal notification to stop holding gatherings there. According to government personnel, they were implementing a “notice from superiors.” If they didn’t obey, the village Party secretary would be dismissed from office.
On March 8, the cross and four Chinese characters for “Guotang Church,” as well other religious symbols were removed from a Three-Self church in Zhongxing town under the jurisdiction of Heze city. The reason for the removal – a new village committee office was going to be built beside the church.
According to a Three-Self preacher, the current comprehensive religious crackdown in Shandong requires the removal of all crosses. He also revealed that it is treated as a political task, meaning that any resistance would not be tolerated, and churches refusing to remove their crosses will be shut down.
Believers’ information registered
In April, the governments of some towns under the jurisdiction of Liaocheng city convened meetings, demanding that information on religious believers be collected and systematized. Christians, Buddhists, and Taoists are all under the scope of the investigation. Meanwhile, Falun Gong practitioners and believers from The Church of Almighty God (CAG) are the main targets of investigation and crackdowns, the authorities demanding that not “a single one of them be omitted.”
On April 16-18, the police in Shandong launched an organized operation and arrested over 50 members from The Church of Almighty God in the cities of Dezhou, Tai’an, and Liaocheng, according to the data provided by the CAG.
Buddhist and Taoist venues have also been vigorously suppressed. According to a government official from Guanyi town under the jurisdiction of Jining city, on April 12 alone, 18 small temples in the town were demolished.
From the end of March to mid-April, in areas under the jurisdiction of Heze city, at least 17 temples were forcibly demolished, with most of the demolitions occurring in the middle of the night.