Police and religious affairs officials across China are warning tens of millions of Christians in the country not to gather to celebrate Christmas, with many citing the coronavirus pandemic, RFA has learned.
The pastor of an unofficial Protestant “house church” in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong who gave only the surname Chen said local police had contacted him on Dec. 22 to make sure his church didn’t organize anything.
“In our town, we’re not allowed Christmas gatherings, not even parties,” Chen said. “This is also happening in Henan [province] and other places, using the pandemic as a pretext.”
“We can only meet online now.”
The pastor of a church in the eastern province of Shandong, who gave only the name John, said similar restrictions are in place where he lives.
“They warned us in the run-up to Christmas that there are to be no activities [related to Christmas],” he said. “It’s the same for some of the churches outside [town].”
“We can only have underground activities.”
Meanwhile, government censors appeared to have scrubbed references to the festival from social media platforms, as local officials in the southwestern region of Guangxi warned primary and secondary schools, students and parents not to stage any Christmas activities.
According to a photo of the directive issued by the Rongan county education bureau, schools are to refrain from celebrating “foreign festivals,” and instead focus on traditional Chinese culture.
Some comments to a post on Sina Weibo confirming that the directive is genuine took issue with the move.
“What is the legal basis for this?” user @Small_fish_bottle wanted to know, while @The_wind_blows added: “We want cultural self-confidence! Ban foreign goods and foreign festivals!”
While some agreed that Christmas shouldn’t be celebrated in schools, @Desperate_Corgi_with_Short_Legs asked: “What about Chinese Christians haha.”
“Then I wish Rongan education bureau a Merry Christmas,” user @The first princess of the second empire and its repairable SAMA quipped, while @Yangliu Xixi Zhao Jiuzhou said the bureau would likely “promote it by prohibiting it, which is a big mistake!”
While one user asked why everyone had to be politicized, user @Xu Guanzi replies: “The so-called political participation is actually an applauding machine. If you want to express any actual opinions, they think you are provoking something.”
Bob Fu, president of the U.S.-based Christian rights group ChinaAid, said the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will soon implement new regulations clamping down on any kind of religious activity online, as well as in person.
Online controls from March 1
Administrative measures governing online religious content will take effect from March 1, 2022, he told RFA.
“Once again, they are using legalistic methods to restrict and undermine the religious freedoms of Chinese citizens,” Fu said. “The police and state security police will now intervene in the case of online religious activities, in the next step in the CCP’s suppression of religious freedom.”
The new rules govern any form of religious content online, including video gatherings, training sessions, videos of sermons or other preaching content, as well as fund-raising “in the name of religion.”
The rules require police, state security police, internet censors and religious affairs bureaus to “supervise and manage” all online religious content, meaning that church meetings conducted remotely could also soon be targeted by the authorities.
Anyone providing religious content online will be required to hold a license, which won’t be given out to anyone who has previously been in the sights of local authorities for “illegal” religious activity in the past, a copy of the rules posted to the Cyberspace Administration website on Dec. 20 said.
Licenses must be approved by religious affair bureaus at provincial level or above, while no overseas organizations or individuals will be allowed to produce any online religious content in China, it said.
In particular, the rules ban “using religion to incite subversion of state power … [or] oppose the leadership of the CCP.”
Content is also banned from “inducing minors to believe in religion, or organizing or forcing minors to participate in religious activities.”
Anyone “impersonating” a cleric online will also be targeted, making unofficial house church pastors and lay preachers vulnerable to prosecution under the new rules.
“National security agencies shall guard against and deal with foreign institutions, organizations, and individuals, as well as domestic institutions, organizations, and individuals colluding with foreign institutions, organizations, and individuals, to use religion to conduct activities that endanger national security on the internet,” the draft rules say.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
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