China’s Communist Party has stepped up its campaign to control religion in the country, jailing several influential church leaders and tearing down crosses against the protests of the country’s 46 million Christians.
A report released by the Human Rights Watch, a New York-based nongovernmental organization that tracks levels of freedom and treatment of citizens in different countries, found that China, “systematically curtails a wide range of fundamental human rights, including freedom of expression, association, assembly, and religion.”
In China, only five “approved” religions are recognized -- although the country as a whole is officially atheist -- by the government, and followers are only allowed to practice their religion in designated areas at specific times.
In 2015, China led a months-long campaign to tear down publicly visible crosses from churches in Zhejiang province, known as the Christian center of China for its high concentration of Chinese Protestants. U.S.-based Christian rights group ChinaAid reported that 90 percent of crosses in Zhejiang have been torn down, and some churches have been completely demolished, according to Radio Free Asia.
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Zhejiang has not been alone as a target of Chinese authorities; religious followers in Zhejiang, Guangdong, Guizhou, Guangxi, Sichuan, Xinjiang and Tibet were all targeted in 2015, according to ChinaAid’s 2015 report.
"Large numbers of house churches have been shut down, large numbers of pastors, church workers and believers have been detained, while church property has been confiscated," the report said, according to Radio Free Asia. "The government is also extending its campaign for sinification of Christianity nationwide. The aim is to harmonize Christianity with socialism, whether it be in the fabric of church buildings or in the missionary work they carry out."
Several influential pastors have been jailed, including Zhang Xiuhong, deacon at the Guiyang Huoshi Church, who was detained on July 28 and is now faces charges of “running an illegal business” in her role as the person in charge of the church’s finances. Huoshi pastor Li Zhiguo also continues to be held in prison, charged with "deliberately leaking state secrets."
Earlier in February, the Chinese Communist Party banned its members from following any religion, even after they retire from public life. Religious activity, as described in a campaign by President Xi Jinping, is seen as a harmful foreign influence in the country.