To curb the virus, China’s children study in virtual classrooms, employees are urged to work from home. But people of faith are banned from assembling online.
by Deng Jie
To contain the spread of COVID-19, places of worship in many countries stopped organizing regular gatherings and started streaming services online. For people of faith in China, such an option doesn’t exit – all such activities have been deemed illegal by the authorities.
After their places of worship have been closed down amid the epidemic, believers on the mainland felt the need to communicate and seek spiritual guidance and comfort. They hoped to do this online but soon were faced with the government’s bans and crackdowns.
On February 23, the Two Chinese Christian Councils in the eastern province of Shandong issued a notice, prohibiting live-streaming of religious services, as per instructions from the higher-ups.
A former Three-Self church preacher from the southeastern province of Jiangxi, who continues to preach outside the state-run church, told Bitter Winter that in early February, just as he started an online gathering, the Internet police forcibly shut down the chatroom he used.
The preacher said that he used to give sermons online for years, but since 2016, the government has started imposing increasingly harsh restrictions on online religious activities, and chatrooms he had created were frequently closed down. The situation has gotten worse since 2019: most of his online accounts have been blocked.
In September 2018, China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs issued a draft regulation Measures for the Management of Religious Information on the Internet, which stipulates that “No organizations or individuals will be allowed to live-stream or broadcast religious activities, including praying, burning incense, worshipping or receiving baptism online in the form of text, photo, audio or video.”
The following month after the document was released, believers all over China received warning messages, saying that they should not use in chatrooms and online groups sensitive words, such as “Amen” or “Jesus,” and are forbidden to post verses from the Bible or links related to religions. Otherwise, their online communities will be banned, and they will be summoned by the authorities.
Religious information has always been one of the targets of the CCP’s censorship online. In an internal government document, issued by the Hinggan League, a prefecture-level subdivision of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, and exposed by Bitter Winter, local authorities are required to ensure “the tight management religious information online.” They are to use “religious online information officers” and develop a cohesive plan to control public opinion by investigating all online religious activities.
Many believers have been punished for violating these strict censorship requirements. In December 2018, a Three-Self church preacher from Yifeng county administered by Jiangxi’s Yichun city reposted a video about the government’s religious persecution, for which he was publicly criticized and had to a written a statement of self-criticism.
In September last year, the police investigated a netizen from the northeastern province of Liaoning for uploading an English version of the Quran. She was asked about her religious affiliations and motives for doing that, and all her online posts have been checked for more religious information. The woman was ordered to write the so-called statements of repentance and guarantee.
“Our pastors told us not to post any message related to religion; otherwise, the police will arrest us,” a Three-Self church member from Jinpu New Area in Liaoning’s Dalian city told Bitter Winter.