BEIJING — A campaign by the Chinese government to “Sinicize” religion is ongoing, with detention and indoctrination of Muslims in the far west of the country and the closing of underground churches to the east.
In early December, Wang Yi and more than 100 members of his congregation were detained in Sichuan province. Some were released the next day, but then put under house arrest.
The Observer, a sister paper to The Guardian, reported Jan. 13 that Wang’s ecclesial community, Early Rain Covenant Church, has now been closed and that Wang and his wife remain in detention, charged with inciting subversion. Some members of the community are in hiding, some have been effectively exiled from the Sichuanese capital, and others are under surveillance.
The building rented by Early Rain Covenant Church has new tenants, and police turn away those looking for the church.
According to The Observer, another church was put under investigation in the Sichuanese capital last week, a Sunday school was raided in Guangzhou in December, and a 1,500-member church in Beijing has been “banned … after its pastor refused to install CCTV.”
Part of the plan to Sinicize Christianity, The Observer reported, is “thought reform”: “The plan calls for ‘retranslating and annotating’ the Bible, to find commonalities with socialism and establish a ‘correct understanding’ of the text.”
Religious freedom is officially guaranteed by the Chinese Constitution, but religious groups must register with the government and are overseen by the Chinese Communist Party. The Sinizication of religion has been pushed by President Xi Jinping, who took power in 2013 and who has strengthened government oversight of religious activities.
The Church in mainland China has been divided for some 60 years between the underground Church, which is persecuted and whose episcopal appointments are frequently not acknowledged by Chinese authorities, and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, a government-sanctioned organization.
In December, two bishops of the underground Catholic Church agreed to step aside in favor of bishops of the CPCA, in the wake of a deal signed between the Holy See and the Chinese government.
And the month prior, four priests from the underground Church in Hebei province who refused to join the CPCA were taken into police custody for indoctrination.
The U.S. Commission on International Religion wrote in its 2018 report that last year China “advanced its so-called ‘sinicization’ of religion, a far-reaching strategy to control, govern and manipulate all aspects of faith into a socialist mold infused with ‘Chinese characteristics.’” Christians, Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong practitioners have all been affected.
The September 2018 agreement between the Holy See and Beijing was intended to normalize the situation of China’s Catholics and unify the underground Church and the CPCA. The agreement has been roundly criticized by human-rights groups and some Church leaders, including Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong.
In 2017, Xi said that religions not sufficiently conformed to communist ideals pose a threat to the country’s government, and therefore must become more “Chinese-oriented.” Since he took power, crosses have been removed from an estimated 1,500 church buildings.
And a government official who oversees religious affairs said in April 2018 that government restrictions on bishop appointments are not a violation of religious freedom, as he emphasized that religions in China must “adapt to socialist society.” The official, Chen Zongrong, added that “I believe there is no religion in human society that transcends nations.”
Restrictions put in place in February 2018 made it illegal for anyone under age 18 to enter a church building.
Reports of the destruction or desecration of Catholic churches and shrines have come from across China, including the provinces of Hebei, Henan, Guizhou, Shaanxi and Shandong.
Muslims, too, have come under pressure from the Chinese government. It is believed that as many as 1 million Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnoreligious group in China’s far west, are being held in extra-legal detention. Mosques in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region have had Islamic icons, Arabic signs and domes removed.