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Beijing targets independent religions as party control tightens

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Beijing targets independent religions as party control tightens

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Chinese society

Beijing targets independent religions as party control tightens

Socially engaged congregations have grown rapidly outside Communist party’s oversight

Religious worship in China is officially sanctioned under state-regulated temples, churches and mosques © AFP

Beijing’s largest independent Protestant church has lost its lease and prominent Muslim and Buddhist congregations are facing heightened pressure from authorities, as the Communist party steps up efforts to bring flourishing independent religions to heel.

Religious worship in China is officially sanctioned under state-regulated temples, churches and mosques, but more spiritually and socially engaged independent congregations have grown rapidly outside the party’s oversight.

However, those groups are now being reined in under the rule of President Xi Jinping, who has tightened party control over civil society, stifled popular online commentators and cracked down on foreign NGOs.

“This is all par for the course in Xi Jinping’s China. Religion is viewed more sceptically than under his predecessors,” said Ian Johnson, author of The Souls of China, a book about China’s religious revival. “Christianity is spreading in the Han heartland and among white-collar workers who are seen as crucial to China’s development.” 

There has been a change in attitude. There is a stronger desire by government to control religion

Ezra Jin, Zion Church pastor

The crackdown has been felt at Beijing’s Protestant Zion Church, which is refusing to move out of its building despite losing its lease. The church was to renew a five-year lease that expired on August 19, but instead saw it cancelled after its landlord and parishioners came under pressure from authorities, its pastor said.

“There has been a change in attitude,” said Ezra Jin, Zion’s pastor, who vowed to keep the church open as long as he could. “There is a stronger desire by government to control religion.”

For months, church members have been visited by police and threatened with losing their apartments, school placements or jobs if they did not stop attending, parishioners said. Some also received phone calls from police in their hometowns.

One widow was plied with groceries by her neighbourhood committee — a local organisation that monitors all residents in Chinese cities — in an effort to convince her to cut ties with the church, parishioners said.

Similar pressure is being felt by unofficial Christian and Catholic churches across China, even as Beijing negotiates with the Vatican for state-to-state recognition. 

Once an underground movement, Christians in independent Protestant churches now number 30m-50m, exceeding the 30m who worship in government-controlled churches, said Liu Peng, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “The Christians in-house churches have changed. Now more and more people such as CEOs, white-collar workers and educated people are joining house churches,” Mr Liu said.

“Christians from house churches have participated in charity such as poverty alleviation, disaster relief and donating schools for kids. These Christians actually are competing with the official church. What they do offsets the party’s authority over society.”

Despite the “house church” moniker, the Zion Church is more properly an “office church”, leasing an entire floor in what was once a Beijing nightclub to accommodate its 1,500 congregants.

Similarly, the Grand Mosque in Weizhou, Ningxia, is an elaborate affair that somewhat resembles the Taj Mahal. Local Hui Muslims rallied last month to protect it from being torn down, in a face-off with police that lasted well into the night. The regional United Front department, which is charged with managing relations with society outside the Communist party, later blamed “reckless” local officials for the confrontation. 

Meanwhile, the Shaolin temple, famed for its martial arts and its commercially minded “ CEO monk”, conducted a national flag-raising ceremony in August that Chinese media said was the first in the temple’s 1,500 year history.

Additional reporting by Archie Zhang

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