‘Faithful disobedience’ in the face of a relentless crackdown: one year since China’s Revised Regulations on Religious Affairs.

Over the past year, the Chinese government has intensified its crackdown on Christians and other religious groups across China.

The mass incarceration of over one million predominantly Muslim Uyghurs, Kazakhs and members of other ethnic groups in ‘re-education camps’ in Xinjiang since 2017 has alarmed the international community, with the detentions receiving UN condemnation. At the same time, Christians across China are also being relentlessly targeted by the Chinese state apparatus, with countless violations ranging from the arrest and torture of religious practitioners to the forced closure of places of worship remaining a daily reality for those peacefully exercising their universal right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB).

Since the revised regulations on religious affairs came into effect on 1 February 2018, reports have emerged of the removal of over 7,000 crosses in Henan province alone. Christians in Henan have also reported that unregistered churches across the province have been forcibly shuttered by authorities. Outside of Henan, in the wake of the revised regulations authorities across China continue to harass worshippers and restrict religious observance at state-approved churches by removing religious symbols from buildings, banning under-18s from religious activities, and forcing churches to install cameras and sing pro-Communist songs.

Authorities across China continue to harass worshippers and restrict religious observance at state-approved churches by removing religious symbols from buildings, banning under-18s from religious activities, and forcing churches to install cameras and sing pro-Communist songs.

The passage of the revised regulations is just one of many steps taken by the government to ‘sinicize’ religion in China, to bring religious groups under one central ideology. The Chinese authorities claim that the revised regulations protect religious belief, but the regulations limit protections for religious freedom to government-approved groups, and in reality even these groups are subject to severe restrictions.

A veil of legality

Of course, FoRB violations against Christians pre-date the revised regulations. Under Xi Jinping, there has been a significant deterioration in the human rights situation overall, including the right to FoRB.  However, the revised regulations give a veil of legality to the authorities’ policy towards both registered and unregistered groups, allowing them to bring the former more tightly under Party control, and to crackdown on independent religious activities.

“The regulations give them an excuse”, a Chinese Christian and expert on FoRB told CSW recently; “since Xi Jinping has come to power, his guiding principle has been the ‘rule of law’. In terms of that, he has had to make new regulations to justify what is happening to Christians in China, and encourage authorities to continue in their actions.”

Religious groups in China must register with the government to be allowed to hold services and carry out every day religious activities, but now it is apparent that even these groups are being targeted by authorities. The Chinese government’s current offensive against Christians in the country has been described as being the largest crackdown on religion since Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

The conditions faced by Christians in China violate a number of international treaties, not least China’s commitments as a signatory to both the ICCPR and the ICESCR (which China has also ratified), and merit condemnation from all those who hold that FoRB is of paramount importance both individually and in the context of safeguarding all the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Faithful disobedience

On 9 December 2018, Early Rain Church, headed by outspoken pastor Wang Yi, was shut down and at least 100 of its members arrested, including Pastor Wang and his wife. Later the same day a number of seminaries and schools run by Early Rain Church were also closed and some of their students arrested, with dozens more detained in raids on many of Early Rain’s satellite groups. Members of the church have been turned away from the building where they used to worship by authorities, and a service held by leaders in a park nearby was stopped and its organisers also detained.

Many of those who have since been released are being monitored by authorities in their own homes. This action, against one of China’s most well-known and socially active churches, signals yet another serious deterioration of the already desperate situation for many unregistered churches in China.

Pastor Wang’s ‘My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience’, a statement written in anticipation of his impending arrest, was released by the church 48 hours into his imprisonment. In it he outlines his theological beliefs behind his non-violent resistance to Xi Jinping’s government and its regulations on religion.

Pastor Wang Yi and others face possible prison sentences of up to 15 years for their activities relating to the peaceful resistance against the regulations that have stifled their religious freedom, but Pastor Wang’s declaration is an example of the strength, resilience and bravery of Christians in China, and indeed countless others worldwide, persecuted for their faith:

“Regardless of which regime I live under now or in the future, as long as the secular government continues to persecute the church, violating human consciences that belong to God alone, I will continue my faithful disobedience.” – Pastor Wang Yi

Pastor Wang Yi. (Photo: Facebook/Early Rain Church)

By CSW’s East Asia Team