Local authorities raid and close places of worship using various pretexts, from poverty alleviation to epidemic prevention.
by Jiang Tao
100+ venues shut down in Anhui Province’s four cities
According to preliminary data, over 100 Three-Self and house churches were shut down this year in four prefecture-level cities in the eastern province of Anhui this year: 43 in Suzhou, 24 in Huaibei, 20 in Fuyang, and 16 in Xuancheng.
On August 7, the Linquan county government in Fuyang merged a state-run church with another venue for “disobeying the government,” “being too close to a school,” and “because the building was dilapidated.” The authorities seized the building, 420,000 RMB (about $ 60,000) donation money, and all church belongings.
Congregation members protested that the church had the religious activity venue registration certificate, and the confiscated money belonged to the church. They told Bitter Winter that officials arrogantly responded that “the state can annul the certificate because it had issued it,” and “everything belongs to the Communist Party as long as you live in China.” They also explained that the central government demands to merge as many churches as possible. To prevent the congregation from resuming gatherings, some locals were arranged to live in the church.
Another Three-Self venue in Linquan was shut down in September on the pretext of “being unlicensed.”
On September 7, the Changfeng county government in Hefei city demolished the Xihuang Three-Self church for “being unlicensed.” A Three-Self venue in Chuzhou city’s Dingyuan county was leveled the same day for “illegal gatherings.”
Jiangsu’s Pizhou city: 111 meeting venues emptied for epidemic prevention
Many churches in the county-level city of Pizhou were shut down on the pretext of “epidemic prevention.” According to some calculations, 111 official and house church venues were emptied and had their religious symbols removed between January and March.
The Gangshang town government in Pizhou shut down in February a Three-Self venue established over 30 years ago. The church was emptied, and the cross above its entrance and the Chinese characters for “Immanuel” and religious couplets on the door were removed. The glazed tiles with religious phrases inside were also smashed.
“How does tearing down religious images and confiscating Bibles prevent the epidemic?” a town resident questioned sarcastically.
A government official explained to believers that “in reality, religious venues are not shut down to prevent the pandemic, but to prevent their gatherings.”
Zhejiang’s Wenzhou city shuts down house churches
Numerous house churches were shut down in August in Wenzhou city. “More than a dozen house churches have been sealed off in Nanhui sub-district alone,” a local house church preacher told Bitter Winter.
The Liushi town government in Yueqing, a county-level city in Wenzhou, shut down a charismatic house church located in a factory building, which could accommodate 2,000 believers. Since June last year, officials repeatedly ordered the congregation to stop gathering, claiming that “the government is afraid church members will unite with foreign churches against the government and endangers its stability.” Another charismatic house church in the town was also demolished.
Believers banned from gathering in a mountain cave in Guangdong Province
After the Heyuan city government demolished a house church venue on February 2, its elderly congregation started gathering in a mountain cave. In July, local officials sent workers to build a 1-meter-tall wall and put glass shards on its top to prevent believers from getting into the cave. The church members then set up a shed outside the cave entrance, but officials also barred them from there and all other venues they moved to in the mountains.
House church members in Heyuan city used to gather in a congregation member’s home until September 2017, when the police dispersed their gathering for the first time. From then until August 2019, the venue was raided six times. The believers had no choice but to start meeting in a makeshift thatched shed. On February 22, eight or nine elderly believers were in a gathering when police officers and village officials came to disband them. Seven days later, the believers found the shed demolished and started gathering on a hillside despite the difficulty many elderly believers faced getting there.
“As far as I know, more than 20 churches were closed down in Dongguan,” a local house church pastor said.
Venues investigated in the name of poverty alleviation
In May, two poverty alleviation officials came to a Great Praise house church venue in Hanzhong city’s Nanzheng district in Shaanxi Province and called the police after finding 16 church members in a gathering. The police then ordered to close it down and threatened to take away believers’ social benefits if they continued practicing their faith.
On June 15, Tancheng county government officials in Shandong Province’s Linyi city discovered a house church venue while inspecting homes as part of the poverty alleviation program. They rebuked village officials for improper management and ordered to demolish the venue’s cross and stop all gatherings.
In July this year, poverty alleviation officials from Zhoukou city in the central province of Henan entered a house church venue on the pretext of registering residents’ cellphone numbers. They confiscated the venue’s cross and other valuables and forced church members to write statements promising to stop gatherings. The venue, which used to accommodate more than 100 believers, was closed down.