WASHINGTON — The World Health Organization declared the deadly coronavirus a “global health emergency” last week — and China’s vulnerable and persecuted religious minorities, including Christians, could be at particular risk as the Asian nation’s health crisis worsens.

That’s the warning that Italian Catholic sociologist Massimo Introvigne, founder of the Center for Studies on New Religions in Turin, Italy, delivered in Washington Tuesday regarding the negative effects the coronavirus is having on China’s religious minorities.

Introvigne, editor of Bitter Winter magazine that monitors religious liberty in China, told the Register that the coronavirus already has had a “dramatic” effect on persecuted religious people like the Uyghur Muslims and Christians. He said that the outbreak has had two effects on religious minorities in China.

“Those who want to escape now, even if they have a visa, there are no flights, and the effectiveness of the visa they may have to Italy and some other countries is suspended, so it’s more difficult or even impossible to escape,” he explained.

“Italy has sealed the border to the Chinese so people who planned to escape, perhaps for months and perhaps got a good Italian visa from an Italian consulate, now they are stuck, and they are in danger of being arrested if the [Chinese] authorities understand that they really tried to escape.”

The second effect, according to Introvigne, “is on those who have massive jail populations like the Uyghurs or the Church of Almighty God — the risk that the disease will spread into jails where conditions are even worse than outside the jails.”

“We interviewed many people who had been in these re-education camps: The conditions are not healthy,” he said. “These are packed places; and we all know when an epidemic strikes, these places are more in danger than other places.”

According to a Jan. 28 Radio Free Asia report, the virus has infected 10 people in the country’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).

“Already the Uyghurs have issued releases that the virus came to Xinjiang and to the jails in Xinjiang, but in these jails there are not only Uyghurs,” Introvigne added. “Even in the Xinjiang camps, there are members of the Church of Almighty God, and the Christians. That exposes the population of inmates in jails and camps to a higher risk than the rest of the Chinese population.”

Introvigne spoke with the Register at an event launching his new book Inside the Church of Almighty God: The Most Persecuted Religious Movement in China, which focuses on the Church of the Almighty God, also known as Eastern Lightning, a group founded in 1991 that the Chinese government has labeled a dangerous cult.

The group, with an estimated membership of 4 million people, reportedly believes that Jesus returned to life in the last century as a Chinese woman, but its members insist that they are not a cult and have been persecuted by the government.

 

Alleged Government Mishandling

Shirley Fan, a member of the Church of Almighty God, came to the U.S. from China in 2017. She told the Register that one of her sisters who was also a member “was arrested and she just disappeared” when she returned to China from South Korea.

“In our church, everyone has an alias; because if people know our names, the police may know our name — because lots of brothers and sisters were arrested, and the police will torture them to tell the others’ information,” Fan said. “In China, we seldom use cellphones because of the surveillance. Once you use the phone or the internet or you say something about the religion, the police can find you.”

Fan said that the coronavirus outbreak is especially concerning because “the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] is really good at hiding the truth. If at the very beginning the government can tell people the truth so they may have good precaution, the virus may not have become so bad; but right now it’s become so bad, and because of the virus Chinese people are hated by people across the world.”

According to The New York Times, the Chinese government’s “initial handling of the epidemic allowed the virus to gain a tenacious hold. At critical moments, officials chose to put secrecy and order ahead of openly confronting the growing crisis to avoid public alarm and political embarrassment.”

Human Rights Watch reported that “authorities have detained people for ‘rumor-mongering,’ censored online discussions of the epidemic, curbed media reporting, and failed to ensure appropriate access to medical care for those with virus symptoms and others with medical needs.”

And China has completely banned funerals and burials for the corpses of deceased victims of the coronavirus, due to concerns over the spread of the virus.

Wenxuan Yuan, a Catholic from Beijing who now lives in the U.S., told the Register via email that friends in Beijing have informed her “that the churches are closed along with all public places (schools, museums, parks, etc.) to prevent large gatherings,” due to the outbreak; and “since churches are closed, now the cathedral of Beijing puts their daily Mass online so that the faithful can follow the Mass while they are staying at home.” 

Catholic dioceses in Vietnam and South Korea are also restricting public services and urging the faithful to take preventative measures in an effort to stop the spread of the virus.

As the reported death toll rose to nearly 500 people worldwide, the Vatican donated hundreds of thousands of facemasks to help limit the spread of coronavirus. The masks have been sent to the Chinese provinces of Hubei, Zhejiang and Fujian.

 

Increased Religious Restrictions

Independent of the coronavirus outbreak, China’s Catholics are facing increased government restrictions on religious services, including on religious funerals, because of the government’s revised “Regulations on Religious Affairs,” which officially came into force Feb. 1. The rules state that “clerical personnel are not allowed to participate in funerals” at homes, and “no more than 10 family members of the deceased are allowed to read Scriptures or sing hymns in a low voice,” according to the Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News). 

Father Guo of Henan parish, which is part of the state-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, told UCA News that government officials have asked them to strictly follow the government’s Regulations on Religious Affairs. “They don’t let me be a priest,” he said.

“If they don’t let me go to church, I’ll just go underground,” Father Guo added, referencing China’s underground Catholic Church, which, unlike the state-sanctioned Church, acknowledges the primacy of the Pope, not of the Chinese state, over Chinese Catholics. “Anyway, the church on the ground is now oppressed no differently from the underground.”

Regarding the current situation for Catholics, Introvigne said many are still being arrested for their faith despite the Vatican’s 2018 agreement with the Chinese government.

“The situation of the Catholic Church of course changed after the Vatican-China deal of 2018, which got very mixed reviews, so to speak,” he said. “We have always been very careful in not saying it solves all problems, it doesn’t, and in not saying it’s a betrayal of the Catholics for several reasons: One reason is we don’t know the text exactly.”

“The Vatican claims there is only one Church now in China and the former underground priests and bishops can join the so-called patriotic organization, whose bishops are I believe selected by the Chinese authorities but formally appointed by the Pope,” he said.

“However, last year, the Vatican issued guidelines saying if some priest or bishop doesn’t want to join the patriotic organization for reasons of conscience, ‘we don’t recommend this, but he would still be a good Catholic, and we ask the authorities to treat these people with respect,’” he continued. “Now, I don’t see the respect because I see that people who refuse to join the patriotic church are thrown in jail.”

“What about these conscientious objectors?” he asked. “Because the Vatican claims conscientious objection is not a recommended option but is a legitimate option, while the Chinese authorities seem to believe it’s not an option — everybody should join the patriotic association or else.”

But Introvigne suggested the Vatican is willing to accept such short-term problems in return for longer-term gains.

Referencing his past work as a representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2011, Introvigne said he has found that “diplomats from the Vatican are different from other diplomats because they have a way of considering ahead of decades while most other diplomats report to elected officials, politicians. They look at the next elections but not the Vatican.”

Said Introvigne, “I believe the Vatican sees this agreement as something which may give fruit that will be evaluated perhaps 30 years from now, not in two years from now.”

Lauretta Brown is the Register’s Washington-based staff writer.