China continued religious crackdown during renewal of Vatican deal

shutterstock 1406018294 Cathedral of the Sacred Heart the main Catholic church of Dali, Yunnan, China. | Marco Ramerini/Shutterstock

The Chinese government continued to enforce sweeping restrictions on religious freedom in the weeks prior to the renewal of a deal with the Vatican on October 22. 

According to Bitter Winter, an Italian magazine that focuses on religious freedom in China, the Communist government has recently ramped up enforcement of the prohibition on the sale and distribution of religious texts. Religious texts are not permitted to be mailed in China as they are considered to be "contraband." 

Bitter Winter reported on October 13 that the owner of a publishing shop was visited by officials one month earlier to ensure that he was not printing religious materials. 

"They checked my storehouse, scrutinized all records, and even looked at paper sheets on the floor, to see if they have prohibited content," the printing house manager located in Luoyang, a prefecture-level city in the central province of Henan. "If any such content is found, I'll be fined, or worse, my business will be closed," he said.

The manager told Bitter Winter that he had to refuse any order that involves religious materials, saying that he could lose his business if he was discovered to have printed the papers. The manager said that "the only faith [people] can practice freely is that in the Communist Party."

Other printing shops maintain similar policies, citing government prohibitions on the publishing of religious texts, particularly Christian texts. A publishing shop was recently closed down and its staff arrested after authorities discovered they had published Christian books.

Photocopying religious materials is similarly prohibited, and a worker at a copy shop told Bitter Winter that he was instructed to report anyone who was looking to make copies of religious material.

"If businesses are discovered, they could be fined as much as ten times their monthly income; or worst of all, workers could even be arrested," the worker Bitter Winter. "If we are not sure if a text is religious, we must keep its copy and report it to authorities."

According to ChinaAid, a Christian NGO, Chinese publications have started to replace the words "Christ," "church," and "Jesus" in their books with the initials of the pinyin terms for those words to avoid censorship. Some book titles, ChinaAid reported on October 20, obscured religious words with color blocks.

Pinyin is a Romanization system for Mandarin Chinese.

By replacing these words, Christians are hoping to evade the censors that would otherwise block their books from being read online. Bibles do not have an ISBN number in China and cannot be purchased at normal bookstores.

Last year, the Chinese Communist Party took down displays of the 10 Commandments in churches in several parts of the country, and replaced them with altered texts to better reflect Communist principles. Communist Party officials have also announced they are working on a Communist-approved version of the Bible. 

Even long-dead Christians have been subject to persecution in China. Bitter Winter reported on October 16 that the previous month Chinese authorities authorities had demolished the tombstones of 20 Swedish missionaries, some of whom died over 100 years ago. 

The missionaries were buried in Xiezhou town, which is administered by the Yanhu district of Yuncheng, a prefecture-level city in the northern province of Shanxi. Swedish Christian missionaries first established a presence in Yuncheng in 1888, and eventually built schools and hospitals in the area. Many people converted to Christianity as a result of the work of the Swedish missionaries, and their renovated gravesites had recently become an attraction for Christian tourists. 

According to Bitter Winter, the Yanhu district government sent over 100 police personnel to the cemetery on the morning of September 12. The gravesites, and a house containing photographs of the missionaries, were bulldozed two hours later. Plants were planted on top of the gravesites. 

Members belonging to the church that erected the tombstones were blacklisted, Bitter Winter reported. Those who lived near the cemetery were also taken in for questioning. 

These reports of Christian persecution in China arose around the same time a high-ranking Vatican official chided a reporter for asking about Christian persecution in China. 

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Despite the ongoing persecution of Christians in China, which has also seen Communist authorities bulldoze churches, arrest bishops, and offer bounties for information on underground religious services, on Oct. 22 the Vatican announced that it had agreed "to extend the experimental implementation phase" of the two-year provisional agreement first signed with the Chinese government on Sept. 22, 2018, 

"The Holy See considers the initial application of the agreement -- which is of great ecclesial and pastoral value -- to have been positive, thanks to good communication and cooperation between the parties on the matters agreed upon, and intends to pursue an open and constructive dialogue for the benefit of the life of the Catholic Church and the good of Chinese people," a communique from the Vatican Secretariat of State said.

On October 21, the day before it was announced the deal had been renewed, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin told journalists that while he was "happy" with the agreement, he also acknowledged "there are also many other problems that the agreement was not intended to solve." 

The cardinal said that the goal of the agreement is "unity of the Church" and that through this unity "it will become an instrument of evangelization," according to a transcript provided by Italian newspaper Avvenire.

When asked about the persecution of Christians in China, Parolin responded: "But, what persecutions?" 

"You have to use the words correctly. There are regulations that are imposed and which concern all religions, and certainly also concern the Catholic Church."

In China, religious education of any person under the age of 18 is illegal. This means that catechism classes have been closed and minors are not allowed to enter church buildings. Catholic churches registered with the Chinese authorities are closely monitored via CCTV cameras connected to the public security network. Priests have been forced to attend government training courses.

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The Chinese government continues to imprison Catholic clergy who refuse to support the Communist Party, according to a September report out of the province of Jiangxi.

China is also reported to have interred more than one million ethnic Uyghurs in a network of concentration camps in Xinjiang Province. Ostensibly for the purposes of combating religious "extremism," multiple reports from international bodies and human rights watchdogs have recorded instances of torture, forced labor, forced abortions and sterilizations, and anti-religious Communist indoctrination. 

Human rights groups have repeatedly called the Chinese actions against the Uyghurs "genocide."

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