China steps up crackdown on underground churches in Henan province

(Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon)Believers take part in a weekend mass at an underground Catholic church in Tianjin November 10, 2013.

Christians in China's central Henan province have complained that members of underground churches have been targeted by local officials with threats and fines since early February.

According to China Aid, a new initiative in Nanyang, Henan requires all Christians in the area to join an officially registered church. All religious gatherings in people's homes are explicitly prohibited, and anyone caught attending or hosting meetings outside of a registered religious venue will be ordered to pay a fine of 30,000 yuan (US$4,700).

Some members of underground churches have been reluctant to join the official Chinese Protestant Church, known as the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, as most of these churches are required to teach loyalty to the Communist Party and Chinese State and often teach propaganda over the actual tenets of these faiths.

"Some of the house church members did not register with the Three-Self Churches, and government officials showed up and inspected their houses. Some brothers and sisters have been too scared to gather. Some split into smaller groups and continue to meet," a local Christian who was identified only as Ms. Wang told a reporter on Feb. 28.

The new restrictions on churches came after the Chinese government implemented new regulations for religious affairs on Feb. 1. In several regions, minors have been prohibited from entering places of worship after the implementation of the new policy.

Officially registered churches within the Three-Self Patriotic Movement have also been targeted by the government despite their officially recognized status.

In Jiangxi province, local officials ordered the removal of a cross on top of Shaxi Church. When church members refused, the officials dispatched a team with a heavy-duty crane to forcibly demolish the cross on Feb. 22.

About 20 female church members tried to stop the demolition by linking arms and singing hymns to block the path of the machinery, but a 10-person team of officials pushed past them and tore down the cross.

After negotiating with church members, the local religious affairs bureau had agreed to allow the church to build a smaller cross and place it on the wall, instead of on top of the building.

"The government agreed to my demand of making a smaller cross, but we can only place it on the church wall. We are not allowed to place a large cross on top of the building. Currently, the cross inside the church is still intact," said a church member who was only identified as Zhang.

Officials often remove the crosses by saying the display violates building codes or by using other excuses. In Zhejiang province, around 2,000 crosses were destroyed in a period of three years after the provincial government launched its "beautification campaign" in an effort to remove all crosses throughout the area.

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