Communist authorities in China are using efforts to control the coronavirus pandemic to step up enforcement action against Christians who worship in house churches, government insiders have told the human rights and religious freedom publication Bitter Winter.
China has been battling coronavirus since late 2019, and the virus is believed to have emerged from a “wet market,” selling both living animals and butchered meat, in the city of Wuhan. Since then, multiple Chinese cities have been placed under lockdown in order to stem the spread of the virus.
According to the journalist An Xin, writing in Bitter Winter on Wednesday, the city of Nenjiang, in the northeastern Heilongjiang province, has offered incentives to residents for reporting their neighbors if they are known or suspected to host religious services in their homes.
On February 20, the city’s coronavirus control group, which was created by the Chinese government, released an order that specifically banned providing a location for “illegal religious activities.”
The coronavirus control group said that this was designed to prevent further people from contracting COVID-19. If a house church was discovered, it would be “resolutely shut down,” per the report in Bitter Winter.
Residents of Nenjiang were offered a reward of 5,000 RMB (about $700 U.S.) if they reported suspected illegal religious activity to the authorities.
In January, the leader of a house church in Daqing city in Heilongjiang province was photographed by Chinese officials, and was forced to write and sign a pledge to stop holding religious services.
“Since 2018, community officials have been coming to film me and my house,” the church leader told Bitter Winter.
“They always know where I go,” she told the publication. “Every time I visit a fellow believer, they follow and harass me. I’m monitored wherever I go.”
Local government officials have ramped up their prosecution of house churches in the past six months, and have shut down at least 12 of these churches since late October.
Since coming to power in 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping has mandated the “sinicization” of all religions in China, a move which the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom called “a far-reaching strategy to control, govern, and manipulate all aspects of faith into a socialist mold infused with ‘Chinese characteristics.’’
The Chinese government is in the midst of implementing a five-year “sinicization plan” for Islam, a religion that has faced increased persecution in the country with at least 800,000 Uyghur Muslims held in internment camps.
Vatican accomodation of the “sinicization” program was a much discussed topic during the formalization of a 2018 agreement between the Vatican and China that regularized the country’s government-appointed bishops with the Holy See.
Previously, bishops affiliated with the “Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association” were consecrated illicitly and previously held to be out of communion with Rome.
China is home to more than ten million Catholics, with six million registered as members of the state-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, according to official statistics. Millions of Catholics belong to the underground Church, which, unlike the CPCA, is not overseen by the Communist party and has always been in communion with the Holy See.
The Vatican-China agreement, reached in September of 2018, was intended to bring the CPCA into communion with Rome and unify the Church in China. According to some reports, the government’s persecution of the underground Church has intensified after the agreement was signed.
A January report of the U.S. China Commission found that Chinese Catholics suffered “increasing persecution” after the deal, where the government was “demolishing churches, removing crosses, and continuing to detain underground clergy.” Priests and bishops have reportedly been detained or have gone into hiding.
In November last year, the head of the state-sponsored CPCA, Bishop John Fang Xingyao, said that Catholics in the country must put their loyalty to the state before the faith.
“Love for the homeland must be greater than the love for the Church and the law of the country is above canon law,” said Fang.