The local branch of the Chinese Communist Party in Henan province recently painted a warning for parents on the wall of a church, as shown in this August photo. It reads: "Minors under 18 prohibited from entering." (Photo supplied)
As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) keeps tightening the screws on religious freedom by banning minors from entering places of worship, Catholics in central Henan province are fighting back by reinventing their homes as temporary churches for services that can include the whole family.
A Catholic in Henan's Nanyang City who gave her name as Maria told ucanews.com that her Catholic parents have responded to state pressure by tightening their communal bonds and organizing gatherings at one another's houses so that they can worship with the whole family including their children.
"Each family is continuing its faith activities at home and maintaining their strong bonds with God," she said. "No matter how intense the persecution gets, it can never beat our faith in the Lord."
Priests also attend these house meetings to explain church teachings to younger family members and strengthen their faith, she added.
Fears are mounting that younger generations will be choked off from their family's traditional belief in Christianity if the CCP has its way and all of its edicts are honored as Beijing views all religions as a threat to its hegemony.
The local government in Henan has been suppressing religion to a greater degree by prohibiting minors from attending religious studies classes and gathering more data on Christians so it can monitor their activities.
Elderly villagers have even been coerced into renouncing their faith amid threats that their social security benefits will be withheld if they fail to comply, according to media reports.
On top of this, a number of civil servants and teachers claim their families have been threatened with various punishments unless they agree to stop attending services at their parish churches.
According to the latest news, Protestant churches in several districts have had their crosses demolished, while a cathedral in Anyang Diocese was ordered to remove its cross and hoist the national flag as a sign of patriotism.
Moreover, the authorities reportedly forced the bishop and priests there to inform them where local parishes get their religious materials printed.
The churches were ordered to remove all such posters and other religiously themed promotional materials, local clergy claim.
In the face of similar incidents that have been going on for several months, Maria told ucanews.com she recently purchased books on Christianity for her children to read as she sets about doing the equivalent of home-schooling.
Teresa Zhao, a Catholic in Henan's Shangqu Diocese, said the Christian community there now feels they must shoulder all of the responsibility for ensuring their faith gets passed down to their children, and they have no choice but to do so in a clandestine fashion.
"This is becoming a general trend in China now," she said. "There's no way to stop it."
She reads Bible passages to children every day now to strengthen their faith and makes them wear sacred ornaments, she added.
"If we keep fostering our Christian faith in their hearts, no one can ever take that away," she said. "Our faith is the greatest gift we could ever give them."
She said none of the party's measures could ever fully crush the spirit of Christians. "The church is global. Our Lord and those who follow Christ existed here long before we had churches or local clergy," she said.
An underground Catholic who gave his name as John said the stepped-up level of persecution reminded him of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, which he experienced as a young child. "Now we seem to be returning to that period, so our kids will get to experience just how bad things can get."
He said the church has been persecuted since the rise of the Roman Empire but that China's tactics would ultimately backfire. "Every round of persecution just makes the church stronger and the faithful more determined," he said. "External blows can't destroy one's inner faith."
The church has survived continuous persecution on the Chinese mainland since the CCP came to power in 1949.
"Even when things were at their absolute worst during the Cultural Revolution, they couldn't get rid of the church," said Martha, another Catholic. "The government is erring massively by trying to roll out those old measures in the digital era."
Father Paul, who serves a diocese in western Henan, told ucanews.com that he had recently refused to hang up a sign banning minors from entering his church, so the authorities showed up with red paint and did it for him.
Government agents have since been guarding the church's entrance, he said.
"Now is the time when parents must temporarily shoulder the load and offer faith guidance to their children," he said.