It's shaping up to be a very un-merry Christmas for China's Christians. In the last four months, Chinese authorities have raided three of the country's most-prominent underground churches, detaining nearly 100 in a wave of pre-Christmas crackdowns on houses of worship that the government claims are threats to the state.
The most-recent raid, in the southern city of Guangzhou, targeted a church founded by one of the fathers of China's underground "house church" movement. More than 60 police officers stormed the city's Rongguili Church last Saturday, seizing thousands of books, recording the personal information of everyone in attendance, and detaining one worshipper.
"Halfway through the children’s Bible class, we heard the footsteps of dozens of police and officials stomping up the stairs," a church member posted online, according to the South China Morning Post. "They read out law enforcement notices declaring our venue was an illegal gathering [that had engaged in] illegal publishing and illegal fundraising and confiscated all Bibles."
Only six days earlier, police in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in Southwest China, raided another underground church, detaining more than 100 and charging its pastor, Wang Yi, with subversion of state power, the pastor's mother told the SCMP.
Wang was the head of one of a church that was underground in name only. The Early Rain Covenant Church had a congregation in excess of 500 people and routinely held open services, advertising them on public streets, and posting the sermons online. He had long suspected that the authorities would come for his church, going as far as writing a letter ahead of time to be delivered to the press if he was detained by the police. In the letter, which was translated by the BBC, Wang wrote that he was "filled with anger and disgust at the persecution of the church by this Communist regime."
"As a pastor of a Christian church, I must denounce this wickedness openly and severely," he wrote in the letter, which was posted to Facebook. "The calling that I have received requires me to use non-violent methods to disobey those human laws that disobey the Bible and God."
He remains in detention and the whereabouts of his wife, Jiang Rong, are still unknown.
This recent wave of crackdowns began in September when authorities in Beijing shuttered the popular Zion church after pastor Jin Mingri refused to install CCTV cameras inside the worship hall that would've allowed the state to monitor the content of his weekly sermons. The church, which drew as many as 1,500 people to services, was accused of printing "illegal promotional materials" and had the five-year lease on its new building canceled.
Why is China so worried about these churches, and what makes them "illegal"? Beijing has a strange relationship with religion. China is, on the surface, an atheist nation, but it also allows freedom of religion—as long as the places you worship aren't seen as a threat to the authority of the state. Officially sanctioned Christian churches, all part of the Three-Self Patriotic church network, mix Christian theology and pro Chinese Communist Party propaganda.
Today, there are an estimated 100 million Christians in China, some of whom have no interest in these kinds of state-sanctioned churches. One member of the Early Rain Church, from Chengdu, told the BBC that these pro-CCP churches were "hilarious," adding that they "don't spread genuine gospel, but spread the thoughts of loving the Party, loving the country."
In February, Beijing rolled out new legislation that increased the authorities' ability to monitor religious activities in China, including giving local officials final say over whether or not to approve a new license for a house of worship in their community. Wang, the pastor of the Early Rain Church, was an early critic of the new rules, writing that the "government has no authority to direct or examine religious groups and religious activities in their doctrinal teaching and governing" in an essay that likely precipitated last week's raid on his church.
And now, with the one of the biggest Christian holidays of the year fast approaching, authorities are cracking down more than ever. It's enough for Yaqiu Wang, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, to tell the BBC, that the new rule—as well as these raids—"makes a mockery of the government's claim that it respects religious beliefs." She called on the rest of the world to speak out on raids and detention of Christians ahead of the holidays.
"As major holidays in many parts of the world—Christmas and New Year—are approaching, we call on the international community to continue to pay attention to the situation of China's independent churches and speak against the Chinese government's repression," Wang, the HRW researcher, told the BBC.