During the last month of 2019, Protestants in the county’s towns and villages suffered intense persecutions, as their churches were shut down for “being illegal.”
by Lin Yijiang
The persecution of house churches that belong to the so-called “gray market” – the largest segment of Chinese religion – has intensified dramatically since the new Regulations on Religious Affairs came into force in February 2018. Crackdowns on them have been implemented throughout the country, and Ninghai county in Zhejiang Province’s prefecture-level city of Ningbo is no exception.
The largest house church venue in Ninghai county – Chengzhong Church – was shut down on orders from the local government in December 2019. All of its about 900 congregation members had no choice but to disperse into small groups and worship in secret at odd places and times.
Leading to the closure, the county’s government, along with its Religious Affairs Bureau, United Front Work Department, Public Security Bureau, and other institutions, had repeatedly summoned the church leader to pressure him into joining the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. When he refused, the authorities ordered the congregation to stop all gatherings and threatened to impose fines if they didn’t. Officials used a variety of pretexts to harass the church, like “there are too many believers during meetings,” “the church’s hygiene and fire control measures are substandard,” and “the church building has been converted from a factory, which is illegal.”
After house churches are closed down, government officials implement “return inspections” as a rule, to make sure that they don’t reopen their doors to believers. Grid administrators and village officials are also instructed to patrol the closed-down venues on Sundays to prevent people of faith from organizing services in their former places of worship. They often take photos and upload them on government servers and notify their higher-ups immediately if they notice anything suspicious.
Five venues were shut down in the Qiaotouhu sub-district. A member in one of them told Bitter Winter that officials pressured the church to join the Three-Self Patriotic Movement or display the national flag and a portrait of Xi Jinping, install surveillance cameras, and post CCP propaganda if they want to continue gathering.
For the majority of house church believers, joining the state-controlled church is not an option – they would rather lose their meeting venues. So, three house church venues in Chalu town were shut down for refusing to join the Three-Self Church.
A believer from Lujia Church told Bitter Winter that government officials threatened to fine the church from 20,000 to 50,000 RMB (about $ 2,900-7,200) each time they are found organizing religious gatherings. While a house church in Changjie town was facing a 50,000-100,000 RMB (about $ 7,200-14,400) penalty and likely imprisonment of their leader if they continued assembling. In Guanzhuang village, a Religious Affairs Bureau official warned a house church that “in serious cases, the church that holds illegal gatherings will be fined 200,000 RMB (about $ 28,700)” – the maximum penalty as foreseen in the new Regulations on Religious Affairs. The government also imposed excessive fines on the landlords who rent to house churches, hoping to stifle their expansion.
In the Taoyuan sub-district, two house churches were closed down, and believers, many in their 70s and 80s, forced to sign statements promising not to meet again. “It’s like the Cultural Revolution,” one of the elderly Christians lamented.