Communist Party authorities in Henan province, China, recently mandated that anyone seeking to attend a church service must fill out a form and get government approval every time they would like to go, the human rights organization China Aid revealed this week.
According to China Aid, an organization that advocates for religious freedom in the country, Party officials have made the documentation available on a mobile “Smart Religion” application and the requirement is mandated for members of all five legal religions: Catholicism, Protestant Christianity (the “Three-Self Patriotic Church”), Buddhism, Taoism, and Islam. Henan’s “Ethnic and Religious Affairs Commission” controls the application.
The government must grant prior approval before a worshipper-to-be can attend a Sunday Mass, Friday mosque prayers, or other such events, and must do so before every single event, meaning on at least a weekly basis for Christians and Muslims. The “Smart Religion” application ironically does not allow “the use of religious identification keywords such as ‘mosque,’ ‘temple,’ ‘Christianity,’ and ‘Catholicism,’” China Aid noted.
China is an officially atheist state with communism and Party worship at its core. It allows the legal practice of the aforementioned five religions, but heavily discourages it and banned all children from participating in any religious activity. The legal religions are administered through five state-controlled entities that often greatly distort their teachings. Mosques in Muslim-majority East Turkistan, for example, enthusiastically promote Communist Party ideology, while Chinese Catholic Masses force worshippers to pray in gratitude to the Party, not Jesus Christ. The Chinese Catholic church is a wing of the Communist Party and not in concert with the Vatican.
The China Aid report, citing Christians on the ground in Henan, said “the cumbersome application procedures have reduced the number of believers attending churches.”
The procedure involves filling out a detailed form on the “Smart Religion” app, the organization described, that uses the person’s “name, phone number, ID number, permanent residence, occupation, and date of birth” to track their religious activity. The government reportedly claims that the reason for the process is to allow people to “reserve” seating at religious events, preventing large crowds from organizing and potentially containing the spread of Wuhan coronavirus.
The Chinese Communist Party still strictly controls the mobility of each citizen allegedly as a form of pandemic response, though officials announced in December, in response to sometimes-violent nationwide protests, that it would abandon its “zero-Covid” policy of city-wide lockdowns and mass incarceration of potential coronavirus carriers in quarantine camps. The government nonetheless announced this week, at its annual “two sessions” for lawmaking, the allocation of $24 billion to be used for “coronavirus control.”
Authorities in Henan, China Aid documented, had publicly said in state media reports that they felt it “necessary to strictly manage religion in a comprehensive way, unite and guide the majority of religious believers to follow the Chinese Communist Party unswervingly.”
Henan appears to be the province piloting the program due to its outsized Christian population. The Chinese government admits that as much as 13 percent of residents in Henan subscribe to one of the two Christian faiths. China claims a Christian population of about 40 million nationwide.
Chinese government estimates severely underestimate the true number of Christians in the country systematically, Christian aid organizations regularly denounce, because they do not take into account Christians who worship privately in their homes or organize small prayer gatherings independent of the state. In reality, human rights organizations tracking faith in the country have estimated as many as 110 million people subscribe to Christian beliefs in China.
Being a “House Christian,” as this is typically referred to, is illegal and many House Christians face incessant persecution and imprisonment. In Henan, the South China Morning Post reported in 2019, the government actively offers money prizes to people who report “unauthorized” prayer or House Christian gatherings. A year later, Christian journalists revealed a campaign to remove Christian iconography from private homes nationwide. On one particularly cruel occasion in Henan, Communist Party authorities raided the home of an elderly woman and found a cross on a door.
“They tore it down immediately,” the woman, who reporters did not name, said at the time. “Afterward, both my minimum living allowance and poverty alleviation subsidy were canceled. I am being driven to a dead end. I have diabetes and need injections regularly.”
Destructive raids and even bulldozing of legal churches is also not uncommon. Zhumadian, Henan, was the site of one of the most infamous events in the modern history of Chinese religious persecution: in 2016, authorities abruptly brought destructive equipment to a local church to bulldoze it. The local pastor, Li Jiangong, and his wife attempted to physically prevent the building from being wrecked. The pastor’s wife was bulldozed to death.
A year later, China Aid documented a violent raid on the Shuangmiao Christian Church of Shangqiu, Henan, in which police arrested dozens of Christians and demolished the structure, which was still under construction at the time. The church, Communist Party officials alleged, had violated building codes.
In 2018, in the municipality of Nanyang, a similar government attack occurred on a local church. A pastor, speaking anonymously out of fear of the government, told Fox News that “crosses, bibles, and furniture were burned during a raid on his church” in an attack that he had no reason to anticipate.