A file image of Catholics praying during a service celebrating the Feast of the Ascension at the "underground" Zhongxin Bridge Catholic Church in Tianjin. (Photo by Greg Baker/AFP)
May 24 has since 2007 been a day of prayer for the Catholic Church in China. Pope Benedict then invited all Catholics, but especially Chinese Catholics, to embrace the special day by renewing their faith in Jesus and striving for unity.
Echoing this, Pope Francis has encouraged prayers asking that Chinese Catholics make concrete gestures of "fraternity, harmony and reconciliation."
Although official religious controls are increasing in China, this day of prayer is not directed against the Chinese government.
Instead, it is primarily designed to encourage communion and reconciliation among Chinese Catholics.
Over recent years, President Xi Jinping has reaffirmed the importance of regulating and "Sinicizing" all religious practice in China.
While Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists endure the harshest treatment, Christians also face growing political pressures.
During the past few months, the Henan provincial administration has launched a campaign against various Christian churches, prohibiting children from participating in some religious activities and destroying exterior Church crosses along with other religious symbols.
This campaign is not widespread across China.
However, with similarities to repressive measures in Zhejiang province several years ago, Henan is in turn adopting hostile measures against Christians.
This reflects a classic Chinese strategy of 'killing a chicken to scare the monkeys.'
This targeted and decentralized action serves as a warning for all Christians to adopt official directives and to exercise self-censorship as well as being an experiment to allow the administration to evaluate the approach's effectiveness.
The more we as Christians are subject to abusive provincial religious policies, the more the 'scare the monkey' strategy is re-enforced.
Since 2003, such scare tactics have also been applied to other sectors, such as regulating the economy.
For instance, in 2004 the administration publicly sanctioned eight local officials in Jiangsu province in order to contain over-investment in China's steel industry.
Even though the efficacy of the approach is debatable, a centralist mindset continues in a wide variety of contexts.
However, the day of prayer encouraged by Popes Benedict and Francis is not about political persecution and what is happening in Henan.
As the popes clearly explained, the day of prayer aims to turn a spotlight on Christ, who reconciles and unifies his Church.
It is well-known that the Church in China is suffering from all sorts of internal divisions. These conflicts stem from multiple factors, past and the present as well as from inside and outside the Church.
As Christ's followers, it is then our duty to constantly turn ourselves towards him to better love our brothers and sisters.
Putting all the blame for our divisions on the state is not enough spiritually.
Reconciliation and communion among Chinese Catholics requires more. And it can come only through prayer.
Michel Chambon is a U.S.-based doctoral student who has spent the last two years in China researching for his dissertation on religion in the country.