To prevent people from worshiping close to their homes, authorities across China close state-run Protestant venues and force believers to attend other churches.
by Tang Zhe
The Poyang county government in the southeastern province of Jiangxi shut down at least 50 Three-Self churches in May this year. A county government employee told Bitter Winter that his superiors convened a meeting in late April, demanding to merge the congregations of state-approved Protestant venues in the area and repurpose the left-over churches for other use.
“The move is aimed at reducing the overall number of religious venues so that they don’t outnumber village committees,” the staff member explained. “If there are 14 churches in ten villages, the number must be reduced to ten, and village Party secretaries must participate in the management of these churches. Those venues that refuse to implement the order will be demolished.”
According to some church directors, numerous venues were shut down after local officials confiscated their registration certificates.
A Three-Self church deacon in the county said that since May, a government representative had repeatedly ordered to hand over to him all church certificates issued by the Religious Affairs Bureau. “Because I didn’t agree, he went to my home and took away all of them,” the deacon explained.
On May 9, the secretary of a village in Poyang went to a Three-Self church deacon’s home and demanded her to relinquish the church certificate. “There is no room for negotiations with the government; they would have arrested me had I refused,” the deacon said helplessly.
“The government lies to us when they say that Three-Self churches are free to function,” commented a church director whose certificate had been confiscated. “Policies change every year. When a church’s certificate is taken away, it means the venue is shut down.”
“We built our church after getting all necessary permits and certificates,” a church member said in tears after his church certificate was confiscated. “Officials don’t keep their word. Just like during the Cultural Revolution, but Xi Jinping is more ruthless than Mao Zedong.”
The government of Poyang’s Jinpanling town shut down the Wenliang Three-Self Church in Dongshanfan village and ordered the congregation to merge with another venue. A local government employee explained that nine churches in the town had been shut down. Many congregation members stopped attending services after they were told to go to other venues.
“All our church members disagreed to merge with other venues, but the government threatened to take over the church if we refused,” a Three-Self church member from Liangtian village in Jinpanling said. “Officials don’t allow us to gather at home, and they would arrest us if we do so.”
Refusing to merge, some churches organize their own gatherings, but the government forces them to worship in assigned venues.
“The government persecutes us so severely, but they still force us to praise them. It’s so hard,” an elderly believer from Poyang’s Hougang township complained.
“We were told to praise the state for alleviatingpoverty and giving us minimum subsistence allowances,” a Three-Self preacher from Hougang said. “The Religious Affairs Bureau demands us to preach according to their script, threatening to demolish our church otherwise.”
“The government removes crosses and merges churches but refuses to admit that religions in China are persecuted,” commented a Three-Self archdeacon from Poyang. “With all this harassment, the number of believers will reduce, and they will be forced to give up their faith eventually.”
Numerous Three-Self churches were merged in Jiangsu, Henan, Shandong, Anhui, and other provinces. A government employee from Jiangsu’s Suqian city said that 40% of churches in the area had been ordered to be shut down or merged to achieve a steady decline of churches and believers. To prevent congregations from gathering again, the government demands their venues to be rented, sold, or demolished.
The Chengxi Church, with a congregation of nearly 400 in Suqian’s Siyang county, was merged in July 2019. Its director was threatened to be punished for “opposing the Communist Party” if he refused to sign the merger agreement.
Some believers complained to authorities that the merged churches could not accommodate everyone, and some venues were too far for the elderly with mobility problems. There are also safety concerns, as the lack of traffic lights in some busy intersections or no guardrails on hilly roads. When all these concerns have been raised with officials, they responded that “elderly believers should not go to church.” An elderly believer died in December last year after a car hit him driving a three-wheeler to church.
In July last year, a Three-Self church in Suqian was demolished the next day its congregation was merged with another venue. A month later, a square was built in its place. Ironically, a bulletin board in the square proclaims that “Citizens are guaranteed religious liberty.”
The Nidang Three-Self church in Siyang county was demolished overnight in August last year after being merged with another venue. A church member recalled that urban management and police officers surrounded the church and dispersed the congregation.
In July last year, at least four Three-Self venues in Jiangsu’s Lianyungang city were merged with other churches. Some were later rented out, while one was converted into a library.
The Quxi Church in Lianyungang’s Guannan county was converted into a cultural auditorium the same month, after its congregation was merged with the Qudong Church in Guannan county. Because the congregations of six other churches were also integrated with this venue, the Qudong Church cannot accommodate all people during services now.