Officials in rural southeast China are reportedly urging Christians to replace posters of Jesus with photos of President Xi Jinping in order to receive poverty relief packages.
According to South China Morning Post, officials in Yugan's Huangjinbu township visited poor Christian families over the weekend to promote the Chinese Communist Party's poverty-relief program.
A local social media account reported that during the visit, the officials had "melted the hard ice in their hearts" and "transformed them from believing in religion to believing in the party."
The report went on to claim that more than 600 villagers "voluntarily" replaced religious texts and paintings in their homes with 453 portraits of the Chinese president.
Qi Yan, chairman of the Huangjinbu people's congress and the person in charge of the township's poverty-relief drive, noted that the campaign had been running across the county since March with the aim of teaching Christian families how much the party had done to help eradicate poverty.
"Many poor households have plunged into poverty because of illness in the family. Some resorted to believing in Jesus to cure their illnesses. But we tried to tell them that getting ill is a physical thing and that the people who can really help them are the Communist Party and General Secretary Xi," Qi said.
"Many rural people are ignorant. They think God is their saviour ... After our cadres' work, they'll realise their mistakes and think: we should no longer rely on Jesus, but on the party for help," the official continued.
According to Qi, there are about 5,000 to 6,000 Christians currently residing in Huangjinbu. He noted that the township government had distributed more than 1,000 portraits of Xi and that all of them were displayed in residents' homes.
A resident of another township in Yugan, identified only by his surname, Liu, said that many of the villagers were told to remove religious artifacts from their homes, adding that many did not do so voluntarily.
He said that many families were forced to remove their images because they would not be able to receive their poverty relief packages if they did not do so.
Qi had denied the assertion that the funds were contingent on the removal of religious images. He went on to say that the government only asked the villagers to place photos of Xi over their religious images in the "center of their home," not their bedrooms or other private areas.
"They still have the freedom to believe in religion, but in their minds they should [also] trust our party," the official said.
Under Xi's leadership, the Chinese government has stepped up its clampdown on religious freedom across the country, ranging from the removal of crosses on churches in eastern China to the suppression on Islamic practices in Xinjiang in the name of fighting terrorism and separatism.
According to Breitbart News, the clampdown is being extended to other autonomous regions like Hong Kong, where the government has exerted its control over Christian events.
Hong Kong Christian activist Derek Lam noted in August that the government had begun hijacking Christian youth events in an attempt to promote "One Belt One Road," an infrastructure project launched by China in an attempt to gain complete dominance of the Asian economy.