As the Communist Party of China continues to tighten its grip on the regulation of religion and religious activity, a human rights group is reporting that officials are disrupting religious rites and ceremonies such as funerals and weddings that take place outside of church buildings.
Bitter Winter, a magazine documenting human rights and religious freedom abuses in China, reported that attendees of such ceremonies have been threatened with investigation and jail, and in some cases have been arrested and detained for more than two weeks at a time.
The crackdowns are part of the government’s campaign to “sinicize” religion, bringing it into unity with Communist Chinese culture. The report comes just five days after Chris Smith (R-NJ), co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, told a congressional hearing that the state of religious freedom in China has “never been worse than it is right now.”
On April 12 of this year, Chinese government officials broke up an 11-person Christian funeral in the province of Henan that was honoring a deceased member of the congregation. Officials accused attendees of “hiding” their actions in the countryside, and threatened them with jail time, according to Bitter Winter reports. The police registered the personal contact information of the attendees and told them that they could be investigated at any time.
In February, in another city in the same province, officials interrupted another Christian funeral for an elderly person. Local authorities reportedly threatened attendees with arrest for holding a religious service outside of a church building, and the attendees dispersed.
Bitter Winter reports that interrupting religious funerals dates back to at least 2017, when a pre-funeral Christian ceremony, also in Henan, was interrupted by officials who declared the activities to be “illegal.” All of the 20-some attendees were detained. Some were released shortly thereafter due to old age or illness, while six attendees were held for up to 15 days in custody.
Also in April of this year, in the province of Jilin, a Taoist temple director was arrested at his temple after someone posted a video online showing a prayer ceremony honoring martyrs. Tipped off by the video, officials investigated the temple on April 17. While the director had obtained the necessary permit to hold such an event, officials told him: “Even if you have a certificate, it’s still unacceptable. You’re deceiving the common people, and this is illegal,” Bitter Winter reported.
Chinese officials also attempted to block a wedding at a church in Henan by requiring attendees to write their names down in a registry, and by disallowing any other festivities outside of the church and banning attendees under the age of 18. A church director told Bitter Winter that he thinks the regulations were put in place to dissuade people from planning weddings in the church. The March wedding was cancelled after the restrictions were put in place.
At another wedding, on May 1 in province of Shanxi, a Christian couple was arrested by police for requesting a band to play Christian songs at their son’s wedding, Bitter Winter reports. They were only released from police after local village officials vouched for the couple.
The crackdowns on religious ceremonies are just the latest in a long list of reported abuses against religious freedom in the country. Chinese government officials have also set up mass internment camps for Uyghur Muslims, and have destroyed churches, burned down crosses, restricted religious expression online, and have attempted to re-write the Bible so that its message is more in line with the Communist party, among other abuses, officials have reported.
Last week, the Vatican issued new guidelines on the government’s requirement of registration for church clergy. The Vatican said it respected the judgement of Chinese Catholic clergy in whether or not they wanted to add their names to the registry. Registration allows clerics to practice their ministry freely, but it also means that they acknowledge the government’s efforts to “sinicize” religion.
The Vatican stated that clerics should register only if they specify that they are doing so insofar as the document that they are signing is “faithful to the principles of Catholic doctrine.”
The Catholic Church in China is divided between the underground Church, which is loyal to the Vatican but operates without government permission and whose ordinations are not approved by the government, and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), which is government-sanctioned.
In September 2018 the Vatican and Beijing reached an agreement known as the China Deal that attempted to bridge the divide between the underground Catholic Church and the CPCA. The deal allows the CPCA to choose a slate of nominees for bishop.
The controversial agreement, while seen by some as a step to a united Church in China, has been criticized by other church leaders and human rights advocates as attempted to compromise with the Communist party, which has not since let up in their aggression towards Christians and other believers.
In April of this year, Chinese officials in the Guangdong province began offering cash incentives for information or tips on religious people and religious gatherings.
In its 20th annual report, released in April 2019, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom highlighted China as being among the worst offenders against religious freedom globally.