Above photo: A seal on a closed church in the Guangdong province in China–one of the multiple churches closed over the last year throughout China (Credit: ChinaAid).
“I must make it clear that the Communist regime’s persecution of the church is a heinous crime.” —Early Rain Covenant Church Pastor Wang Yi, arrested in China in December 2018
One of the more notable takeaways of the 2019 World Watch List is the rise in rank of China. In 2018, the county was ranked at No. 43, suggesting that, while there were certainly isolated examples of persecution against Christians, believers could mostly worship freely.
This year, China is ranked at No. 27. The 2019 rise in China’s persecution score mark’s the country’s highest-ever spike on the list, reflecting a tightening of religious belief that impacts Chinese Christians in every part of society.
How did this happen? What has changed in the last year that has led to such a leap in pressure and oppression for followers of Jesus in China?
Here are five things you need to know about China’s rise on the 2019 World Watch List.
1.The government in China does want not any competition.
The most important thing to remember about China with regards to Christian persecution is that it’s a huge country with a population of over 1 billion people—over three times more people than the United States. But the Chinese government, ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, works hard to make sure nothing in the country is a threat to the absolute authority of the Party—and its chairman, Xi Jinping.
How this looks, in reality, can vary drastically from place to place. In some regions, Christians might experience no real threats, because the government doesn’t view them as a large enough force to present a serious alternative to their authority. But then in other places, persecution as blatant as tearing down crosses from churches makes every Christian in the area fearful of the government.
For years, many churches in China have existed as “gray churches”—which means places of worship that are technically unregistered, but have generally been able to go about their mission and worship without government interference. Under Xi, the Chinese government has begun to crack down on these “gray churches,” pushing them to either grant the Chinese state more influence or to shut down. In one instance, a large Protestant church in Beijing (Zion Church) was forced to shut down after it refused to allow closed-circuit TV cameras in its building to monitor congregants.
Even registered churches, which are government-sanctioned and regarded with suspicion by many Christians in China, are facing challenges. Some have experienced increased harassment. Both Catholic and Protestant state churches were required to draft a plan to show how their churches can grow in compatibility with the Chinese state.
These shows of force are not limited to Christians—the Chinese government has placed thousands of Uyghurs (an ethnic minority who are majority Muslim, with some Christian members) into “re-education camps.”
2.New laws mean new pressures for churches in China.
In February 2018, new regulations regarding religion took effect in China. On the surface, these new rules allow churches and other places of worship to own property, publish literature, train religious leaders and more. But the regulations also specify increased controls on religious groups by the Chinese authorities. Under these new rules, some unregistered churches have had a hard time renewing their rental agreement for their worship spaces, and the push for unregistered churches to become officially registered has risen. Even the state churches have experienced difficulties under the new regulations, with Chinese authorities attempting to consolidate the number of churches in a given region to prevent any church from being too large or influential.
China debuted the new rules, stating that they were to help “block extremism” but in actuality have been applied to bring all religious groups more and more under the authority of the Chinese Community Party. It remains to be seen how these laws will continue to play out. Based on what has happened in the last six months, expectations of things changing or getting better are.
3.Old, unenforced rules are now being enforced.
Technically, unregistered churches around China have been at legal risk since they started. But, for the most part, they were left alone as long as they didn’t attract too much attention. That has changed, as noted above. But in addition to the new regulations, there are signs that the Chinese government is cracking down on existing rules that have gone unenforced for years.
For instance, Chinese law forbids children under 18 from attending church, but that guideline has been mostly ignored. But now, there have been instances where children were forbidden from attending church and warnings from church officials that taking children to church could lead to church closure or governmental action. Additionally, Open Doors has heard from other sources in the region that church camps, church-affiliated schools and other student religious groups are being challenged or threatened by the authorities.
The Bible has also only been allowed to be sold at official church bookstores, but it was widely available online. For the most part, the government did little to oppose these online sales. But in April 2018, online sales of the Bible were stopped by the state.
The underground church in China has always had a very shaky legal foundation, and now it seems the Chinese government is interested in doing away with the uncertainty.
4.Examples are being made of major “underground” churches.
Pastor Wang Yi, quoted above, led a large and popular church in Chengdu, China. And yet, authorities targeted Early Rain Covenant Church in late 2018. When Pastor Wang and his wife were arrested, he was charged with “inciting subversion of state power,” which carries a maximum prison sentence of 15 years.
It was just the latest example of the government targeting a prominent church. The closure of the Zion Church in Beijing was notable—the church was well-known and held its worship services in a large, public meeting space. In January 2018, a large megachurch—home to up to 50,000 worshipers—was dynamited by Chinese police as part of a “citywide campaign to remove illegal buildings.” These actions seem intended to show that no church is too big or too prominent to run into trouble from the government—and to send the message that churches shouldn’t seek to have too much influence in the lives of Chinese citizens.
5.Christians living in ethnoreligious subcultures are also at risk.
In addition to threats from the state, Christians living in some ethnic subcultures may experience persecution for their faith by their communities. In majority-Muslim Uyghur contexts, Christians can be heavily persecuted for their faith in Jesus, particularly if they converted from Islam. Similarly, Christians who live in Tibetan Buddhist communities may be persecuted for their Christian faith, especially if they converted to Christianity from Buddhism. All religious groups—including Muslims and Buddhists—are targeted by the Chinese government, but Christians living in these religious communities may be persecuted by their neighbors and families, as well.
Praying With the Church in China
Recently, one of our indigenous ministry partners who works to equip church leaders in China shared specific prayer needs for church leaders and churches in China:
- Fortitude. Pray with Chinese Christians and church leaders for the fortitude to withstand increasing pressure and violent acts of persecution.
- Empowerment. Pray that God would empower His church in China to reach the next generation.
- Wisdom. Pray that leaders in China’s churches would have the wisdom to know how to handle the pressure they are coming under.
- Workers for the harvest. Pray that the Lord of the harvest will send workers to plant and nurture seeds that will ultimately bring forth an abundance of Kingdom fruit.
- Protection. Pray that God will protect the rights and abilities of His people in China to worship Him.
- Supernatural intervention in the hearts of leaders. Pray that Xi Jinping and other Party officials will hear the voice of the Holy Spirit and put their trust in Jesus.
- Courage for believers. Pray that given the choice between religious displays and poverty rations, believers will have wisdom and courage.
- House churches and new ways to worship. Pray with congregations whose church building have been closed—that they would be emboldened to meet in homes and increasingly grow in their faith.
- Thousands of men in Chinese “re-education” camps. Ask God to show them His presence and bring them comfort. Pray for their families for provision while they are gone.
- Christians recently arrested, including Pastor Wang Yi and 10 elders of Early Rain Covenant Church.
- China’s next generation of believers. Ask God to speak to their hearts even as the state attempts to stop or thwart their exposure to Jesus. Ask Him to raise up leaders from this persecuted generation.
- The Word of God to spread throughout China—despite the halting of online Bible sales. Pray that the new laws would drive Christians to memorize Scripture and share it.
- Christians living in ethnic subcultures, especially converts from Islam and Buddhism. Pray for protection and a Kingdom perspective for those who endure persecution from their family and community.
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