China intensifies crackdown on churches with new plans to force registration with government

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

An organization with ties to the Chinese Communist Party has unveiled new plans on how the government can enforce its restrictions on churches, including forced registration with state-run Christian institutions.

On Sept. 8, the Association of Christian Students, an institution sympathetic to the Chinese government, published a report describing plans to launch a specialized management program targeting private churches, "illegal" religious organizations, and preachers who have not been ordained by the state.

Under the new program, churches will be forced to register with the state-run Three-Self Patriotic Movement, and smaller house churches will be forcibly combined with registered churches.

According to the report, churches that refuse to register will be banned, and those that have been labeled by the public security and religious affairs bureau as "illegal religious organizations, organizations influenced or controlled by foreign powers intending to infiltrate [the country], or [religious] gathering places that broke the laws or are under the control of cults," will be shut down.

In order to implement the new program, the government will be working with state-run religious organizations to run indoctrinating speaking tours and encourage Christians to resist supposed "heresy" as well as "illegal" religious institutions.

In the province of Henan, Christians were forced to meet illegally in their homes after local officials banned their gathering place in May following accusations of "heresy" from members of the Three-Self Church.

The officials initially allowed the Christians to gather at a patch of land, but the state-affiliated church intervened and tried to get members of the house church to join their congregation.

The elderly members of the house church chose to conduct services in their homes since the nearest Three-Self Church was too far for them to travel. However, they were also forbidden from using their own residences to hold services.

The religious rights group China Aid has contended that the Chinese Constitution protects the religious freedom of Chinese citizens, but the government insists on monitoring and censoring churches due to concerns that foreign nations are using Christianity and other non-Chinese belief systems to infiltrate the country.

Churches are required to register with the government to be considered legal, but even registered churches have been the subject of government's crackdown over the past few years.

The intensified crackdown is believed to be prompted by the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China which will be held next month.

In February, the government is expected to implement a new series of revisions to the Regulation on Religious Affairs, which provides narrower restrictions on house churches and grants the authorities more power to suppress and close them.