Chinese Christians meet in smaller groups to avoid government crackdown on churches

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

Chinese Christians have now resorted to meeting in smaller groups in person and online as the government intensifies its crackdown on underground churches.

Last week, the Chinese authorities announced that a new set of rules regulating religious affairs has been passed, a year after the proposed amendments were released to the public.

The new rules, which will be implemented in February next year, will impose stricter restrictions and stronger punishment in an effort to curb religious activities outside official institutions.

Enoch, a 22-year-old Christian in southern China, noted that the church he attends in a flat in Zhuhai, Guangdong province used to have a door plate bearing its name, a cross on the front wall and rows of chairs in the living room.

But in November last year, members of the church decided to remove the door plate and the cross, and replace the chair with a couch, in an effort to avoid being reported to the authorities.

"We are trying to look more like a family that are here to chat and drink tea so no one will report us to the police," he said, as reported by South China Morning Post.

The authorities have previously tolerated the family-style gatherings, but the situation could change after the implementation of the amended Regulation on Religious Affairs, which is scheduled to take effect on Feb. 2.

Under the new rules, organizers of unapproved religious events can be subjected to fines of 100,000 yuan (US$15,288) to 300,000 yuan (US$45,865). Prior to the amendments, the fine would be equivalent to one to three times the organizer's income from the unauthorized activities.

The amended rules also impose a fine of 20,000 yuan to 200,000 yuan on those who benefit from "providing conditions for illegal religious events."

Enoch, who converted to Christianity three years ago, expressed concern that the church he attends may be shut down one day, but he is still reluctant to attend a state-approved church.

"At the state church, I felt like I was listening to a lecture. But at the family church, people know about each other and love each other," he said.

About 50 people used to attend services at Enoch's church every Saturday and Sunday, but late last year, the church introduced weekday sessions to ensure that there were no more than 20 people worshipping at any one time.

Enoch noted that the church's WeChat group with 150 church members had been replaced with smaller groups of 30 to 40 people each, to make them less noticeable to the cyber police.

Some of the biggest family churches in the city of Wenzhou have also divided into smaller groups, and some pastors of churches with hundreds of members had also rented new meeting spaces to reduce the size of their congregations, according to a missionary who works for a state-sanctioned church.

Some church leaders have suggested that the new regulations are mainly focused on curbing the rise of Islamic extremism and will not greatly affect Christians. Others have said that local authorities are typically hesitant to enforce regulations on churches due to fears of creating conflict and instability.

However, others have noted that they have already seen some tightening of restrictions, particularly related to student and youth work, and some local officials have handed out punishment to avoid being castigated by their superiors.

In Wenzhou, local authorities have started conducting a new round of visits to family churches, and have demanded a halt to lessons for children, which is a banned activity under updated religious affairs rules.

The US-based Christian rights group China Aid has noted that tens of thousands of Christians have been affected by the government's crackdown on underground churches from 2012 to 2016.

The authorities have made more than 500 arrests of house church leaders in 2015 and more than 600 last year, according to the group, adding that many other churches have been searched, torn down or had their crosses forcibly removed.