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In China churches are being demolished and new laws are set to increase monitoring of religious activities. As more Chinese turn to Christianity, the Communist Party sees a rival in a struggle for hearts and minds.
Last week, authorities in China's northern Shanxi province demolished a massive evangelical church using bulldozers and dynamite. The Jindengtai ("Golden Lampstand") mega-church, which reportedly had a congregation of 50,000 people, was one of many so-called "underground churches" in China that religious activists say are being targeted by China's Communist government.
These independent congregations are not registered with the government, which all religious organizations in China are legally required to do.
According to the government-run Global Times, the Golden Lampstead, located in the city of Linfen, was demolished as part of a "city wide campaign to demolish illegal buildings." Local officials were quoted saying the church was not built with the necessary permits and "was secretly built" under the guise of being a warehouse.
The Associated Press reported that the demolition was carried out by the "People's Armed Police," a paramilitary force used for civic deployment like dealing with protests and firefighting.
In December, Christian-centric news organizations in China reported that a small Catholic church located in the neighboring province of Shaanxi was demolished without any explanation. The church had stood for nearly 20 years and had been built with legal permits.
Religious oppression disguised as law?
Critics say that what Chinese officials are calling rule of law is actually part of the Communist Party's growing campaign to increase control over religious organizations and monitor any threat they may pose.
These latest church demolitions also come ahead of a revised series of "religious regulations" set to go into effect across China on February 1. They would increase restrictions on non-registered churches, ban religious teaching and increase oversight on online discussion, financing and the location and construction of religious buildings.
The general principles of the regulations state that the management of religious affairs should adhere to the principles of protecting "legitimate religious activities, curbing and preventing extreme practices and resisting infiltration."
Religious organizations operating outside the law will be subject to heavy fines.
Read more: Opinion: Religion is not the problem
Fenggang Yang, Director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University and a leading expert on Christian religion in China, told DW that the new regulations are intended to go after churches run by priests and bishops that are not approved by the official, party-organized religious associations.
"One of the main targets of the new regulations is unregistered churches, including both underground Catholic churches and Protestant 'house churches,'" he said, adding that the Golden Lampstead was a well-known house church, and its pastors and elders have been harassed and imprisoned in the past.
In 2009, the church was raided by police and armed thugs who damaged the structure and took away Bibles. Church officials were reportedly jailed for "illegally occupying farmland."
"The dynamiting of the church recently seems to be a prelude to the new wave of crackdowns under the new regulations," said Yang. "These Christians will be pressed to join the party-state sanctioned 'patriotic' associations. Their connections with Christians outside mainland China will be restricted and penalized if they continue."
Government-approved Christian organizations in China include the Catholic Patriotic Association, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee and the Christian Council.
Faith opposing party ideology
As the number of Christians grow across China, so too does government oversight. The Communist party is officially atheist, but ostensibly allows freedom of religion. It was recently decided, however, that no party member would be permitted to have any religious affiliation.
China officially recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam and Protestantism. These are regulated by the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA). Part of SARA's mandate is to "support religious circles to make self-education on patriotism, socialism and motherland reunification."
According to Yang, the party fears the connection between religion and civil activism, as large faith-based organizations pose a threat to centralized control of both political and social power.
"That is what the Chinese Communist Party is afraid of. They have perceived, alarmed and exaggerated the connection ever since the collapse of the Soviet regime in the 1990s," he said.
"In recent years, the party-state suppressed a large number of lawyers who dared to challenge the authorities, and a large proportion of civil rights and human rights lawyers are Christian."
The 2011 report on Global Christianity released by the Pew Research Center said that in 2010 there were 58 million Protestants and 9 million Catholics in China. By examining growth patterns, Yang estimates that in 2018 there are about 100 million Christians in China. The country is also the world's largest producer of Bibles.
These figures indicated the number of Christians in China is greater than members of China's Communist Party, which in 2016, had an estimated 89.5 million members.
In Xi we trust
In November 2017, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported that thousands of Christians in Yugan province were visited by party cadres and asked to replace pictures in their homes of Jesus Christ and other Christian ornamentation with pictures of Xi Jinping.
The action was part of a poverty-relief campaign that was to "transform believers in religion into believers in the party."
Qi Yan, a local party official responsible for the program, told the SCMP that they should "no longer rely on Jesus but on the party for help."
"Many rural people are ignorant. They think God is their savior," the official told the SCMP.
"They still have the freedom to believe in religion, but in their minds they should [also] trust our party."
Wang Zuoan, the director of SARA, was quoted in the Global Times in July 2017 saying that religion in China needed to be "sinicized" and for religious groups to focus on parts that are "beneficial to social harmony and development."
He also said that China was being threatened by foreign powers through religion.
"Foreign forces have used religion to infiltrate China, and extremism and illegal religious activities are spreading in some places, which have threatened national security and social stability."
China expert Yang said that the current environment for religion in China is regressing back to the era of Mao and the Cultural Revolution, during which all religion in China was brutally oppressed.
"The personality cult of Xi is catching up with that of Mao. During the Cultural Revolution under Mao, all religions were banned," he said.
"Cults of personality and anti-religious campaigns do appear to go hand in hand. The reason behind this connection is the demand for loyalty to the supreme leader of the party. Religious piety to God would be considered in competition with the political loyalty to the supreme leader," he added.
But as China grows into a modern society, the Chinese people may also experience an accompanying spiritual awakening, which will evolve in ways the party will be unable to predict or address. And that means people may start asking questions to a power even higher than Xi.