To avoid raids and arrests, house church believers disguise their venues or opt to pray in the mountains, just to stay away from the watchful eyes of the regime.
by Zhou Xiaolu
Since the new Regulations on Religious Affairs came into effect in 2018, all places of worship that are not part of the official, CCP-run religious institutions face the risk of being eliminated altogether and forced to be put under the state’s control. To continue adhering to their faith, many house church Christians have been forced to adopt a variety of measures to escape harassment by the government.
Gatherings in a bathhouse
In April, a house church meeting venue in a city of Inner Mongolia was shut down by the local United Front Work Department and Religious Affairs Bureau on the grounds that it was holding “illegal gatherings.” The person in charge was threatened with arrest if he continued holding congregation meetings.
After the closure of their meeting venue, believers started gathering in the shop owned by one of the congregation members. The police still found them. In desperation, the believers rented a 30- square-meter public bathhouse that was not in use as their new meeting venue. The prayers now are held under showerheads. Though the weather in April was pleasantly warm, it was damp and cold inside the bathhouse, so believers didn’t dare to take off their coats during gatherings.
The original signboard “Bathing and accommodation” is still displayed on the building. The area around the bathhouse is uninhabited, so the church members hope to avoid being tracked down for now.
“Holding gatherings at the bathhouse is also temporary,” one of the congregation members said worriedly. “Once the government finds us out, we’ll still need to move somewhere else. We don’t have any extravagant demands. We just hope to have a meeting venue where we can worship God, but even this simple wish is unattainable in China.”
Church concealed as an activity center
A preacher from a house church in Xi’an, the capital of the northwestern province of Shaanxi told Bitter Winter that the local sub-district office and the police harassed the church in October last year, claiming that the gatherings were illegitimate, and the donations by believers constituted “illegal fundraising.” The authorities pressured the congregation to join the Three-Self Church; otherwise, the place of worship would be forcibly shut down and its assets confiscated.
“As soon as we join the Three-Self Church, the national flag and national anthem would enter the church, changing the church’s essence,” the preacher explained the reasons for not wanting the state to govern their church.
To conceal the church from the government, the preacher removed all of the church’s religious symbols and changed the sign at the entrance to “Activity Center.” “If they come to conduct an inspection, I’ll just say that this is an activity center and that we’re not holding gatherings anymore,” the preacher hopes not to be found out by the authorities.
A church or a company?
Tightly closed doors and windows, firmly drawn curtains, no cross, a preacher speaking quietly, without a microphone, and the congregation singing hymns as if whispering – this is the new reality for another house church in Xi’an.
One of the church’s believers revealed that to avoid being found out and arrested, the church has been disguised as a company. Now, when the congregation meets, they tell others that they are the company’s customers. The church’s group on the messaging platform WeChat is named as a group for students. Believers avoid using any religion-related images or words and phrases in their posts online, such as Jesus, hallelujah, or thank God. Online donations have been canceled. They split up their gatherings into smaller groups now, with no more than ten people at each meeting. They also assemble early in the morning – between 7 and 8:30 – to evade inspections by the government that are usually conducted later in the day.
Gathering in a valley
A house church in Lanzhou, the capital city of the northwestern province of Gansu, has also come under repeated attacks by the government. The local Religious Affairs Bureau and National Security Brigade threatened to impose a fine of 50,000 RMB (about $ 7,500) on the church and arrest and imprison anyone who refused to comply with their demands to join the Three-Self Church.
Despite threats and intimidations, believers refused to go to a government-controlled church located one kilometer away from their meeting venue. Instead, they decided to hold their gatherings in a small mountain valley 17 kilometers away. Since their outdoors meeting venue is remote, the surrounding area uninhabited, there is no public transportation to get there. So, believers have to rent cars and traverse mountain roads every time they go to worship. They still prefer this inconvenience to have the state tell them how to practice their faith.