During a six-month crackdown last year, authorities merged and repurposed places of worship using threats, intimidations, and other deceitful methods.
by Lu An
On direct orders from President Xi Jinping, a six-month-long crackdown campaign against Protestant churches was launched last year in China’s eastern province of Jiangsu, targeting the largest Christian populations. According to the new data, the previously reported number of nearly 200 closed-down venues has more than doubled. Five-hundred-forty-nine sites run by both state-run Three-Self and unregistered house churches were shut in four prefecture-level cities: 241 in Huai’an, 142 in Lianyungang, 121 in Yancheng, and 45 in Suqian in the second half of 2019.
On October 30 and 31, eight venues in Lianyungang-administered Donghai county were shut down for “being unlicensed or dilapidated.” Officials threatened to impose 200,000 RMB (about $ 29,600) fines on house church congregations if they continued gatherings.
In the case of Three-Self churches, officials ordered numerous venues to merge—a go-to measure used throughout China to reduce the number of religious sites. According to an employee in Lianyungang’s Guannan county, only one-third of the state-run Protestant venues in the area were allowed to remain as they were, the rest were merged in June last year.
The government of Guanyun county’s Sankou town ordered to reduce the number of official Protestant churches from 26 to 6. The spared venues could not be close to national highways, township government or village committee buildings, schools, and residential communities.
In Shuyang, a northern county under direct provincial administration, the Religious Affairs Bureau ordered directors of the more than 20 official churches to hand in their account books and legal documents. Only eight were allowed to continue functioning.
“Officials ordered church directors to sign merger agreements,” a church director from Shuyang said. “Many large churches have been merged with small ones, and now they cannot accommodate all believers.”
“There are three churches in our village, and Christians outnumber just over a dozen CCP members. That is what the central government fears and why they order to reduce the number of believers,” a village official in Lianyungang said. “They first rectify churches, before gradually shutting them all down.”
Authorities often use force while forcing venues to merge. In December last year, over 30 Guannan county government personnel came to the Lu’nan Three-Self Church to shut it down. They informed the congregation that the venue had been merged with another church. As believers started expressing their dissatisfaction with the order, five of the visiting personnel carried a septuagenarian church member outside and threw him on the ground. The elderly man started vomiting and then fainted. When a fellow believer protested against such brutal behavior, he was pushed and shoved around until he suffered a heart attack. Another believer’s wheelchair was nearly overturned, stopped in time by other congregation members. When a churchgoer started filming the scene, government personnel seized his phone, threatening to arrest the man.
Officials use other devious methods to close down religious venues. In August last year, a Three-Self Church venue director in Shuyang county was ordered to bring the venue’s certificates and other documentation to the local Religious Affairs Bureau to be renewed. Two months later, not only new documents were not issued, but the venue was shut down. Officials explained that “only one church is allowed in one sub-district.” Twenty-three other churches in the area were closed as “illegal venues” after their documents were confiscated. The sites were repurposed, sold, or even demolished to prevent congregations from gathering.
A Three-Self church deacon from Guannan told Bitter Winter that directors of all state-run churches in the county were convened for a meeting and ordered to rent or sell their venues, or “the government would destroy them with excavators.”
The county’s Younan Three-Self Church, with 400 congregation members, was forced to merge with a smaller church in June last year. The government ordered to rent the church within three days; otherwise it would be demolished.