Three provinces in China have reportedly expelled hundreds of South Korean Christians who are helping North Korean defectors as the communist government continues its crackdown on religious activities.
Since late last year, hundreds out of around 1,000 South Korean pastors and missionaries in China have been deported by the authorities in the provinces of Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang, according to Express.
In Changchun, the capital of Jilin province, all South Korean churches have been shut down as of early last month.
The local governments have not offered any explanation for expelling the South Koreans, but a source said that the authorities strongly recommended the Christians to return home as they believed the pastors close to the border were helping North Korean defectors.
"As they were sent back home, churches were closed automatically," the source was quoted as saying.
The expulsion of South Koreans has been seen as a pre-emptive measure before the government implements new regulations on religious affairs on Feb. 1.
Under the new regulations, anyone who organizes unapproved religious activities will face fines of up to $45,200 and those who provide venues for "illegal religious events" will be fined up to about $30,100.
The new rules, which will apply to all religions, would also allow lower-level authorities to take actions on "unsanctioned religious activities," bringing religious groups in the country under tighter scrutiny.
China has also been sending North Korean defectors back to their home country even though they are known to face "systemic" torture under Kim Jong-un's regime.
"Accounts from North Korean defectors indicate individuals caught trying to defect or forcibly repatriated from China are severely punished, particularly those believed to have interacted with missionaries or engaged in religious activities," a 2016 report by United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) noted.
Additionally, the Chinese government also routinely arrests and cracks down on local Christians in an attempt to suppress the growth of the religion.
According to Bob Fu, founder and president of China Aid, an organization that documents persecution of Christians in China, Chinese leaders are "increasingly worried about the rapid growth of Christian faith and their public presence, and their social influence."
"It is a political fear for the Communist Party, as the number of Christians in the country far outnumber the members of the Party," he added.
Fu further noted that the communist government wants to "sinicize" religion, meaning to promote and guide religion that is Chinese in orientation.
The authorities have raided underground churches, arrested pastors, and took down rooftop crosses as part of the government crackdown on Christianity. Human rights activists have also been harassed and tortured under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, who was recently elected to a second five-year term as the Communist Party's general secretary.
There have been speculations that Xi is likely to continue being the Communist Party's top figure even beyond the end of his second term in power as the party has not found a clear successor to the Chinese president.