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3 things you should know about religious freedom and the church in China

Refined by the fire. This has been the history of the church in China. Since the rise of the atheist Communist Party, Chinese Christians have faced incredible persecution at the hands of their government. Yet, the church has persisted and its numbers have grown exponentially. Today, the Chinese church is thought to have anywhere from 70 to 115 million members.

Over the last 30 years, the Communist Party has gradually released its grip on religious groups, allowing many underground churches to begin to peek their heads up from their hiding places, even buying church buildings, putting up crosses, and building websites.  

But over the last few months, a shift back toward a strict centralized control of religion has occurred. Here are three things you should know about the new threats to religious liberty that our Chinese brothers and sisters in Christ are facing today.

1. In the name of national security, the Chinese government is once again clamping down on religious freedom.

This fall the Chinese government passed a new set of rules regulating religious affairs. The regulations, which will be implemented beginning February 2, place severe restrictions on unregistered religious groups.

Christianity Today details the new regulations:

In September, China finally nailed down religious restrictions introduced last year. The numerous regulations, made in the name of national security, prohibit unregistered groups from teaching about religion or taking part in trainings or meetings outside the country (like the Thailand conference), beginning in February 2018.

In addition, no religious activities—including the publication of religious materials, the acceptance of donations, any international religious exchanges, and renting space to an unregistered church—can happen without the approval of the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA). (. . .)

The new rules come down especially hard on religious schools—requiring them to apply for government approval, have their own funding and facilities, and hire full-time staff

The Chinese government claims that these new regulations are necessary to protect against Islamic extremism, but Christian leaders fear their effect will force the church back underground. The vast majority of churches in China today are unregistered in order to protect themselves from the control and influence of the communist government, so the new regulations are sure to drastically affect the church.   

2. In the name of poverty alleviation, Chinese Christians are being told to look to President Xi Jinping for salvation, not Jesus.

A disturbing campaign against religious liberty is underway in rural China. Local officials have begun “educating” rural impoverished villagers that their faith will not save them, but that President Xi Jinping will.

Communist Party members involved with poverty alleviation efforts believe that by clinging to their faith, rather than relying on the resources given by the Communist Party, rural Christians will remain in poverty. One official is on record as saying, “Many rural people are ignorant. They think God is their savior. After our cadres’ work, they’ll realize their mistakes and think: We should no longer rely on Jesus, but on the party for help.”

In several areas, local Party officials have gone door to door “asking” villagers to remove all Christian items from their home and replace them with images of President Xi.  

The Washington Post reports:

A social media account in Jiangxi province’s Yugan county said villagers had “willingly” removed 624 posters showing Christian religious sayings and images, and replaced them with 453 images of Xi. The move, while still on a small scale, harks back to the personality cult surrounding Communist China’s first leader, Mao Zedong, whose picture was in every home.

In the latest campaign, party members involved in poverty alleviation toured villages telling people how the party was supporting agriculture and removing poverty, “melting the hard ice in the hearts of religious believers” and “helping turn them into believers in the party.”

The cult of personality developing around Chinese President Xi Jinping seems to harken back to the era of Mao Zedong, the infamous first leader of the Communist Party of China. As President Xi consolidates power, there are new fears that Christians will face extreme persecution in China once again.

3. The Chinese church is as vibrant as ever.

Despite the mounting adversity Chinese Christians are facing, the church is thriving and has set its focus of exporting missionaries throughout the world.

This fall, 1,200 Chinese youth attended a global missions conference in Thailand, and 300 of them committed to becoming full-time missionaries. The organization that sponsored the conference, Mission China, is a collective of unregistered churches that seeks to send out 20,000 missionaries by 2030.

Chinese Christians are streaming into some of the areas most hostile to the gospel, like the Middle East. Just this past June, two Chinese Christian missionaries in Pakistan were kidnapped and murdered by the Islamic State, drawing new attention and scrutiny from leaders in Beijing.

Chinese Christians have endured decades of persecution, and through it all, the Church has continued to grow in grace and in numbers. In fact, numerous missionaries tell stories about the persecuted Church in China, the Middle East, and elsewhere praying for the church in the West to be persecuted so that it will awaken from its stagnation and slumber.

May we learn from our brothers and sisters in Christ in China so that we might pray for them and learn from their example.

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