Observers say Chinese government-religious relations worsened in 2015

IMAGE: CNS photo/Wu Hong, EPA


HONG KONG (CNS) — When Chinese Minister of Housing Chen
Zhenggao traveled to bustling Yiwu in mid-October, news reports said he told
housing and law enforcement officials to “battle against illegal
constructions” by learning from Zhejiang.

Zhejiang has used the pretext of illegal building to
bulldoze churches and remove their crosses. By Christmas 2014, reports said 500
churches had been targeted in the province. By this past Christmas, the number had
exploded to more than 1,500, reported

After claiming 2014 to be the worst year for religious
persecution in China since the Cultural Revolution, observers in and outside
the country say this year saw the situation deteriorate further. Relations
between China’s faithful and the Communist Party have not been this strained
since the days of Chairman Mao.

In Tibetan monasteries, monks and nuns complained the
Communist Party is interfering more in daily life than it has for years. In Xinjiang,
burqas were banned; so too was “terrorist clothing.”

“Authorities have lost the hearts of the people after
the cross-removal campaign,” said a former Catholic journalist in Zhejiang
who gave only her Christian name, Clare.

Although authorities succeeded in forcing churches to display
less-conspicuous crosses in Zhejiang, few doubt the provincial government’s
campaign has achieved anything except harden Christian resolve, let alone curb
an appetite for evangelism.

“It helped unite all the clergy to fight for their
rights,” said John, a catechist in Wenzhou.

As the cross-removal campaign reached a crescendo midyear,
ordinary Christians and priests took to social media to announce a campaign
making minicrosses, and bishops took the rare step of publicly denouncing

With the campaign winding down in Zhejiang, Christians say
they now face something even worse: the cross-removal campaign was all about
controlling the church facades, but in recent weeks authorities have interfered
inside churches.

In Wenzhou, Christians reported state officials attending
church on Sundays to silence critical voices. In other areas of Zhejiang,
authorities put up propaganda notices on church pin-boards, according to state
media. This is all part of a new campaign called “five entries and
transformations,” which aims to make churches more Chinese — and by
default less foreign — while picking and choosing Bible verses that correlate
to party doctrine. reported that some estimates put the number of
Christians in China at more than 100 million, and the Communist Party is
attempting to co-opt Christianity to its own political ends. But it remains
unclear whether its policy comes from the very center of the party, and
therefore whether it will endure, said Fenggang Yang, director of the Center on
Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

High-ranking party officials appear to disagree about
whether Christianity should adapt to China, or the other way round, he added,
and a firm direction won’t be made until a delayed religious meeting led by
President Xi Jinping takes place.

Fenggang told the fact that the meeting had been
postponed multiple times “is a sign of Xi’s dissatisfaction with the work
and direction of religious affairs, and probably a sign of an impasse of
internal debates and disagreements.”

For China’s diverse religious communities, the future
remains less certain than it has been for many years.

Whatever happens, few Chinese Christians appear hopeful of a
reprieve from Xi’s strict, rule-of-law handling of the communist government in
2016. On China’s periphery, minority Tibetan Buddhists and ethnic Uighur
Muslims appear even less optimistic.

This year started with an official ban on burqas in
Xinjiang, then in May Beijing extended what is in effect a state of emergency
following a series of attacks.

Stricter measures have seen the first mass trials in China
in 20 years and thousands of additional troops deployed in cities, including

Alarmed by a series of attacks blamed on Uighurs and recent
violence overseas by the Islamic State group, which released its first call to
arms in Mandarin in December, the Chinese government has pushed ahead with
drafting a new, controversial anti-terror law.

International rights groups acknowledged China needs to
tackle a surge in violence in the west of the country, but also warned
repeatedly that the draft risks enshrining a vague catch-all to help Beijing
target opponents, real and imagined.

In January, authorities in Tibet posted public notices
offering rewards of up to 300,000 yuan to informants who tip off police ahead
of “violent terror attacks.”

The main targets were vaguely described as “overseas
terrorist organizations and their members’ activities inside China and those
spreading religious extremism.”

In July, police in a Tibetan region of Sichuan province
opened fire on protesters demanding the return of the body of spiritual leader
Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, who died after nearly 13 years in prison. His conviction
and 20-year sentence for a series of bombings in Chengdu in 2002 remains
disputed by most Tibetans.

Although his represents the most high-profile case this
year, overall more Tibetan monks and nuns were confirmed detained — 31 in 2015
compared to 21 the previous year, according to a tally by London-based Free

As Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, turned 80 in
July, Beijing seemed to turn up criticism denouncing his “Middle Way”
approach of greater Tibetan autonomy. Then, two weeks after his birthday, a
Tibetan delegation returned from Beijing saying more dialogue would soon
follow. It had been five years since the previous official talks.

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