China: Church closures evidence of plan to eliminate house churches

Hainan Island (Province) off southern coast of China
Hainan Island (Province) off southern coast of China

By China Aid Association

China’s shuttering of more than a dozen unregistered congregations in Hainan Province is evidence of a plan to do away with house churches, according to the China Aid Association (CAA).

Besides the church closures on Hainan Island off China’s southern-most coast in the past several weeks, officials have threatened to close many others, the advocacy organization maintains.

“Closing a dozen churches in Hainan is an alarming sign that little has changed with Xi Jinping as president,” CAA President Bob Fu said in a statement. “The government is carrying out its plans to ‘eradicate’ the independent house church movement, a crackdown that would affect up to 100 million people.”

In the city of Sanya on Hainan Island, officials from China’s Religious Affairs Bureau and a neighborhood committee on May 26 interrupted the worship service of Sanya Hosanna Church to deliver a document announcing the “voluntary dissolution of irregular and illegal religious meeting sites.”

Ordering the congregation to go to registered religious meeting sites, the officials warned that if the Christians gathered the following week, they would “take measures” and “would hold the believers accountable for the consequences,” according to CAA.

The members of the local neighborhood committee also pressured the landlord of the church site to stop renting the property to the congregation, “and gave them 15 days’ notice to move out,” according to CAA. The organization added that officials kept a church pastor from attending a conference in Hong Kong on grounds that “it might jeopardize national security and national interests.”

Three other unregistered churches in Sanya – Elim Church, Bethel Church, and Xinju Church – were also ordered to close on May 26, according to CAA. Two weeks earlier, officials ordered the closure of Mengai Church and Hexing Church in Sanya, along with three other unregistered congregations.

“A church in Haikou has also faced the same situation, and seven or eight other churches have been shut down,” the CAA states. “Some churches in Baoting County have also been shut down.”

China’s Communist government began the first of a three-phase plan to eradicate unregistered house churches last year, according to a CAA report. In 2012, a three-phase approach was adopted to wipe out unregistered house churches and force them to join the official Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) church system.

In the first phase, from January 2012 to June 2012, the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) secretly investigated house churches across the country and created files on them, the report says. This was followed by a wave of crackdowns on house churches, which has continued into 2013 as part of the second phase. The second phase entails strongly encouraging unregistered churches to become part of the TSPM – at which point they would become known as “house gatherings,” with the government banning the term “house churches,” according to CAA.

Some house churches have registered with authorities to avoid arrests and harassment, but most do not as they object to TSPM beliefs and controls. Barriers to evangelical churches registering with the TSPM include theological differences, adverse consequences if they reveal names and addresses of church leaders or members, and government control of sermon content.

The number of Protestant house-church Christians has been estimated at between 45 million and 60 million.

The third phase is expected to begin from 2015 through to 2025, when the government would shut down house churches that do not comply with the requirement to join the TSPM, according to a joint-memo issued in September 2011 by SARA and the ministries of public security and civil affairs, the report says.

With this objective in mind, authorities in 2012 stepped up long-time tactics of banning and sealing churches, pressuring churches to join the official Three-Self structure, detaining church leaders and sending them to labor camps on the pretext of “suspicion of organizing and using a cult to undermine law enforcement,” and strictly restricting the spread of the Christian faith among students, the report points out.

CAA cites Beijing’s Shouwang Church as an example of closures by authorities, saying officials pressured landlords to terminate lease agreements with church members, placing church leaders under house arrest and evicting church members from their homes.

Last September, Shouwang Church leaders said members were detained 1,600 times, 60 members were evicted from their homes, and more than 10 lost their jobs because they attended the church’s outdoor worship services or simply because they were members. Many others were sent back to their hometowns, and some were confined to their homes on the weekends.

“China must end this repression if it wants global respect as a rising power,” Fu said in his press statement. “China Aid expresses its shock and concern that the relevant administrative departments of the Hainan government are systematically closing down house churches.  Recent reports from many other provinces and regions indicate that the same thing is happening to house churches elsewhere as well, further confirming China Aid’s report last year of the intensification of the Chinese government’s secret 10-year plan to eradicate house churches.” — China Aid Association