Every week now, new videos surface showing churches in China’s central Henan province being shut down by the authorities. The images are shared online by rights organisations and by Chinese pastors who are based outside of the country, and therefore not subject to censorship. They denounce the government’s intensifying pressure on religious groups.

The churches being shut down are independent “house churches” that refuse to register with the authorities.

Many of the videos show local authorities pulling crosses off the top of church roofs, sometimes with the help of large cranes. (More such videos here and here). 


According to Reverend Jonathan Liu, who is our contact with worshippers in Henan province, this video was filmed on September 1, 2018, and shows a Christian chuch located on the outskirts of Pingdingshan.

According to Reverend Jonathan Liu, this video was filmed on August 27, 2018, in Zhengzhou, Henan province.


In several videos, the crosses are on fire. It is unclear how they caught fire, though Reverend Jonathan Liu, who is based in San Francisco, said he believes it is possible that this could be a method used to intimidate Christians.


According to ChinaAid, this video shows a church in central Henan and was filmed on September 8, 2018.

Several Chinese pastors living abroad are very active in relaying images of church closures in China. One of them is Bob Fu, who runs the US-based rights organisation ChinaAid. ChinaAid’s English Editor, Brynne Lawrence, explained the recent intensification of closures:

We’re seeing all these images because there’s an escalation in the persecution of Christians across the country, and right now Henan province is the hottest spot for that. This campaign of church closures has intensified since the new Regulations for Religious affairs came into force in February. These are nationwide regulations that more strictly regulate religious activities than the previous regulations – there is less room for interpretation than before. The overall goal of these regulations is to enforce the “Sinicisation” of religious practices – to bring religious people under the ideology of the communist party. The idea is that being a good citizen that is loyal to the party comes before belief in God. And that means forcing churches to register.

 

Officials welding shut a church door as a crowd watches. According to Reverend Jonathan Liu, these videos were filmed in Xinyang, Henan province, on September 2, 2018. 

 

There are two types of Christian churches in China: registered churches, and unregistered ones, also called “house churches”. Registered churches are subject to monitoring, and are often forced to install facial recognition cameras inside places of worship. Their sermons also get censored, and communist propaganda is added – “the state is great”, etcetera. People are forced to sing the national anthem. So the house churches want to avoid that level of scrutiny and practise their faith as they see fit. While some decide it’s safer to register, a lot of them keep resisting despite the risks. Some house churches stay discreet, while others keep crosses on their rooftops.

A notice ordering the closure of an unregistered church in Luohe, Henan province. Image shared by Revered Jonathan Liu.
 

Refusing orders to register generally leads to the church being closed, as well as the arrest of pastors and church leaders. Sometimes the authorities just demolish the cross; sometimes they demolish the whole building.

This campaign is invoking a lot of fear among Christians in China. We’re getting a lot of cries for help – people are worried they are going to lose more of their rights, and they’re very concerned about the surveillance cameras in the registered churches. The unpredictability of their situation is quite scary.

Reverend Liu, in San Francisco, has also relayed many images of church closures in Henan province. He says that he receives information and images from Christians living in China.

“The crackdown is particularly intensifying in Henan province right now because it’s the province where Christianity is developing the fastest,” Liu said. “The images we receive only tell part of the story. We know there are many closures of smaller churches that don’t get photographed or filmed.”

 

According to Reverend Jonathan Liu, this video shows a crowd outside a shuttered church in Zhengzhou, Henan province. A cross removed from the church can be seen swinging from a cable in the background. 


A major closure took place in Beijing on September 9 when an unregistered church called Zion was shuttered. About 1,600 people attended services at Zion, and its prominent pastor has remained publicly defiant, saying that he will continue running the church elsewhere. He told the AFP that he has been harassed by officers and was briefly detained after trying to retrieve possessions from the church.

Christians are not the only religious group feeling increased pressure from the Chinese authorities. In June, Buddhist monks and nuns in Tibet were made to take a training course on the government’s religious policies and forced to take “patriotic tests”. And in August, authorities in Henan raised the People’s Republic of China’s red flag over the Shaolin temple, a 1,500-year-old Buddhist temple famous for its martial arts training. Meanwhile, United Nations experts have expressed alarm that as many as 1 million Muslims from the Uighur minority may have been detained in “re-education” camps in western China in the name of combating religious extremism.

China has five officially sanctioned religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism and Islam. All places of worship are required to register with the authorities, but many believers prefer to attend services at unregistered locations.

READ MORE ON THE OBSERVERS (article from 2015): China's Christians defy ruling party by displaying crosses