While China’s government works hard to create an illusion of religious freedom, they work even harder to control those who believe in God.
The pastor must have known, when he hung the cross on the church building, that he was taking a risk. In China, to have a church that is not registered with the police is illegal. And the police proved this when they stormed into the meeting one Sunday. “Remove the cross,” an officer demanded. No one moved. “If you don’t, I will,” the officer shouted, turning toward the door. Several members of the congregation followed him and his fellow officers outside to the front of the building where the cross hung.
“Don’t touch it,” a parishioner called out. His voice faltered. Others joined in. “Don’t take it down. It’s our cross.” The officer stood between them and their cross, reprimanding them for meeting to worship God and issuing threats if they continued. They rushed forward to protect their cross and their faith, but the policeman shoved them away. He pried the cross from the wall and left.
Living in China, I’ve heard many stories similar to this one. Yet, when I return to the West, I hear some people say they believe there’s religious freedom in China.
I understand why there are mixed messages. Beatings and imprisonments are rarer now than in the past, and although I live here, at times I feel confused. When I went to the police station to apply for my visa, I passed a new church, painted a bold white with a cross piercing the sky. I stopped and gazed up, wondering who allowed this church to be built, who allowed a cross to stand in such a prominent place in the city. During my decade in China, I’d never seen anything like it.
When the police officer interviewed me for my visa application, he told me, “You can be a Christian in China. We have churches—there’s one just down the road.” He spoke enthusiastically, waving his arm in the direction of the church I had passed. It was so new it was not yet open. But this was followed by a command: “Don’t try to convince anyone to believe in God.”
In the past, treatment of Christians in China was horrific. Their stories received international attention, and the government was pressured to change. And they have changed. They’ve spent years developing a new strategy, a wolf in sheep’s clothing: control dressed as religious freedom.
As the government was constructing these new buildings and finishing them with bold lettering, announcing they were Christian churches, they were also strategizing about how to take a firmer stance against underground churches. This was a ploy to scare believers out of the underground and into the doors of the newly opened state-run churches that defer to government rules for their approved message.
They laid the groundwork, and in February of this year, new religious regulations were introduced. A Chinese friend translated their chosen title. “Religion Management Law,” she called it. Think about that name: “religion management.” Does it speak of freedom?
With these stricter laws, no existinghouse church can be approved by the government. To register with the police, both the location of the church and the pastor must be approved. The pastor must have attended a state Bible college, a place where propaganda takes precedence over biblical truth. Even Internet websites with religious content must be registered with the government.
Some believers are caving in to the pressure, afraid of what they will lose if they stand against the government. Some are drawn to the beautiful buildings and the appearance of freedom. Others stand firm—they will worship God only in a place where the message has not been mandated by the government. But it’s getting harder to attend an underground church. The police are making stronger efforts to shut down meetings. They interrogate pastors, photograph attendees, and issue threats. They don’t often use violence, but they threaten unaffordable fines, confiscate equipment, force believers out of their meeting places, and follow them to new locations to shut down the meetings again and again.
While China’s government works hard to create an illusion of religious freedom, they work even harder to control those who believe in God. Yet, with the unique dynamics within China, this is not a straightforward task. In some areas of China, laws are enforced subjectively, and some local government workers are not enthusiastic about enforcing religion regulation. This means at times that underground churches meet illegally with the awareness, or even the friendship, of local government workers. “… [one] local policeman criticized the new regulations, complaining they would disrupt the cordial relationship they had, up until now, enjoyed [with the pastor of an underground church].”1 This brings me back to the point that the full situation is difficult for an outsider to grasp. Even a situation where a policeman doesn’t want to enforce the law is complex. While this may seem positive, it creates another challenge. People don’t know what to expect.
If an underground church is ignored and continues to meet, the pastor and members of the congregation live with the nagging fear that a neighbour or family member could at any time report them for a reward, forcing the police to take action. Or a policeman could have a change of heart and pull in the pastor, of whom he has long been aware, for interrogation.
In the West, where law enforcement is more consistent, this concept can be hard to grasp. But in China, it’s reality. The true stories recounted here from visiting and talking with believers do not come close to providing a full idea of the complicated picture that is religion in China.As Western Christians, we need to expand our understanding of the challenges our brothers and sisters face daily so we can lift them up in prayer, break down strongholds, and pray for those who oppose the truth. With stricter religious regulations in place, the church in China, which makes up a significant portion of our spiritual family, is depending on us to equip ourselves for powerful prayer.
This RAN global worker (name withheld for security concerns) ministers in Asia along with her family. They have served in this country for over a decade.