A Chinese boy walks through the aisle during a Mass at a Catholic church in a village near Beijing on Holy Saturday, April 3. (Photo: Jade Gao/AFP)
The recent arrest of a Vatican-approved bishop, priests and seminarians in north-central China came as a shocking development, if not surprising, as religious persecution in the communist country has continued to intensify under the watch of President Xi Jinping.
Bishop Joseph Zhang Weizhu of Xinxiang in Henan province was arrested by police on May 21, a day after police detained his seven priests and an unspecified number of seminarians. They are accused of violating new regulations on religious affairs.
The prelate and the priests drew the ire of authorities by using an abandoned factory as a seminary for religious formation of future priests.
They are charged with breaching a new set of rules for religious clergy implemented this month. It requires all clergy to register with the state in order to serve Catholics while asking Catholics to elect their bishops democratically.
The rules also make it illegal to perform religious activities including worship in places not registered or controlled by the state.
The arrests sparked condemnation from Christian and rights groups.
We call for the immediate and unconditional release of these Christians and all those detained across China on account of their religion or beliefs
Mervyn Thomas, founding president of London-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), said the new regulations on religious affairs are tools for oppressing religious communities, especially Christians.
“These arrests, which follow the introduction of the new regulations on religious staff, appear to confirm fears that restrictions on religious communities will continue to tighten. We call for the immediate and unconditional release of these Christians and all those detained across China on account of their religion or beliefs. We also encourage the international community to raise this and other cases of arbitrary detention and harassment of religious leaders,” Thomas said.
The CSW also noted that prominent Christian leaders such as Zhang Chunlei of the Love Reformed Church and Pastor Yang Hua from the Living Stone Church in Guiyang in Guizhou province were harassed and assaulted before being arrested by authorities.
Local authorities shut down the Living Stone Church in 2016 and the Love Reformed Church in 2018. The leaders have been detained after they were accused of fraud and illegally running unauthorized organizations.
Pastor Yang was beaten so badly by a local leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in a police station in Guiyang that he had to be admitted to the emergency department of a hospital in the city.
Yang was also arrested in 2016 when his church was shut down and spent 2.5 years in prison on fabricated allegations of “deliberately divulging state secrets.” On his release in 2018, Yang told fellow members of the church to “hold fast to the faith,” according to US-based international advocacy group China Aid.
Bishop Zhang has faced the ire of authorities for decades. It is because China never recognized Xinxiang as a diocese since it was set up by the Vatican in 1936. Bishop Zhang, ordained secretly in 1991, was not approved by the state-aligned Bishops' Conference of the Catholic Church in China and Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
Bishop Zhang has been under pressure from the state for years due largely to his allegiance to the pope and refusal to join the state-aligned open church. He was never allowed to run the diocese effectively and the diocese has been in the custody of a government-appointed administrator since 2010. The prelate was also arrested on several occasions but released later.
Since the latest arrests, the whereabouts of Bishop Zhang, priests and seminarians remain unknown, while some media speculated that they have been held in solitary confinement and are subject to “political lessons.”
There are rising fears among China watchers and observers that the communist regime has been moving slowly to crush religious groups, including Catholic and Protestant churches that it deems illegal and a threat to the CCP’s iron-fisted rule in mainland China.
In a recent article in Forbes magazine, Dr. Ewelina U. Ochab, a London-based expert on international law and genocide researcher, suggested that Christians in China might be next in line for “re-education” like Uyghur Muslims.
Li said he was detained in a windowless room for nearly 10 months
Christians are subject to high levels of persecution, while the situation of all religious groups in China is dire and has been deteriorating in recent years, she said.
The Christian Post reported this month that Chinese authorities have been removing Bible apps and Christian WeChat public accounts. International Christian Concern reported that Bibles in hard copy are no longer available for sale online either, adding that Bible apps can only be downloaded in China with the use of a virtual private network (VPN).
In April, Radio Free Asia (RFA) published a report that claimed authorities in China were detaining Christians in secretive, mobile "transformation" facilities to make them renounce their faith.
The RFA report used the testimony of Li Yusee, a pseudonym for a member of a Christian “house church” in Sichuan province. Li said he was held in a secret facility run by the United Front Work Department of the CCP in collaboration with the secret police for 10 months after a raid on his church in 2018."It was a mobile facility that could just set up in some basement somewhere. It was staffed by people from several different government departments," Li said, adding that it had its own political and legal affairs committee working group and mainly targeted Christians who are members of house churches.
Li said he was detained in a windowless room for nearly 10 months, during which time he was beaten, verbally abused and "mentally tortured" by staff.
He said most of his fellow inmates were also people who had been released on bail during criminal detention for taking part in church-related activities. Although they didn’t commit any criminal offense, police sent them to “transformation facilities.”
Thousands of churches have been damaged or closed
China’s repressive policies and actions against religious groups have been documented by global watchdogs.
On Jan. 13, 2021, US-based Christian group Open Doors published a World Watch List that assesses 50 countries where Christians face the most severe forms of persecution. It listed China (17) among the top 20 countries due to a widespread crackdown on Christians and other religious minorities.
“The policy of ‘Sinicizing’ the church has been implemented nationwide as the [CCP] limits whatever it perceives as a threat to its rule and ideology. Thousands of churches have been damaged or closed. In some parts of China, children under the age of 18 aren’t allowed to attend church — part of the country’s efforts to stunt future growth,” Open Doors reported.
Sinicization aims to impose strict rules on societies and institutions based on the core values of socialism, autonomy and supporting the leadership of the CCP.
In its 2021 report, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCRIF) commented that China continues to persecute Christians and harass Catholic bishops despite the 2018 Vatican-China deal on bishop appointments.
Under the deal, which was renewed last year, the Vatican recognized eight bishops ordained by the state without papal mandate. However, China didn’t recognize a number of Vatican-approved bishops including Bishop Zhang of Xinxiang.
“Despite the Vatican-China agreement on bishop appointments, Chinese authorities continued to harass, detain and torture underground Catholic bishops — such as Cui Tai and Huang Jintong — who refuse to join the state-backed Catholic association. They also harassed, detained, arrested and imprisoned members of Protestant house churches who refuse to join the state-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement,” USCRIF reported.
It also pointed out that the government continued to demolish both Catholic and Protestant church buildings and crosses under its Sinicization campaign.