Pastors in the northeast province Liaoning in China were forced to undergo a special training conducted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The purpose of the training was to “reform” them into loyal party members who will promote the CCP to their congregations through their preaching and a new, sinicized version of the Bible. According to the humanitarian rights watchdog group Bitter Winter, churches are being turned into “propaganda centers” through this mandatory training on “traditional Chinese” culture.
“During the training, not even one sentence from the Bible was mentioned. All they talked about was ‘sinicization.’ They said that traditional Chinese clothing must be worn when giving sermons; all churches in European, Gothic style must be demolished and Chinese-style churches built instead,” a pastor who attended the training told Bitter Winter.
The training targets pastors in the Three-Self Church (the “above-ground,” official version of the Protestant church in China acknowledged, and closely monitored, by the CCP). So far, the training has mostly occurred in more provincial areas of China outside of the bigger cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. The training in Liaoning took place in July and, according to one attendee, if a pastor did not attend and receive a certificate of completion, they would not be allowed to preach and would be “punished later.”
Christianity Being Used for Western Infiltration
At the training, CCP officials made it abundantly clear where the party falls in regard to religion. Some speakers at the training claimed that Christianity was forced on China by westerners, or that it was an outcome of the Opium Wars, which many Chinese regard as an attempt by Europeans to destroy China through drugs and firepower. Indeed, a similar training pastors in Liaoning Province were forced to attend in March emphasized the Party’s belief that “foreign hostile forces” are trying to infiltrate China through “religious figures and masses.” Authorities claim the United States, working in partnership with South Korea, and using Hong Kong as a “bridgehead” are using religion “to create political pluralism.”
Underlying this training and other official statements given by party officials throughout China is the idea that a good Chinese citizen will be loyal to the Party first (and President Xi Jinping specifically) and God second. The pastor who spoke to Bitter Winter said a pastor could have his or her preaching qualifications revoked if they dared to say the Bible has a higher authority than the CCP’s policies.
The wariness with which the CCP holds religion at an arm’s distance has been observed by political leaders in the U.S. At the Second Annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom held in Washington, D.C. in July, Representative Chris Smith summarized the CCP’s sinicization attempts this way: “Under sinicization, all religions and believers must comport with and aggressively promote communist ideology—or else.” Smith’s comments at the Ministerial pointed to the fact that it isn’t just Christianity that is being targeted by the sinicization attempts. The Uighur population (an ethnic group in western China that is traditionally Muslim) has also been targeted, to the point of being rounded up in concentration-like camps for the purpose of reeducation.
Patriotic Services Planned for PRC’s 70-Year Anniversary
With the 70-year anniversary of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) coming up in October, churches are being forced to host patriotic services. In Liaoning Province, a service was held in July at one of the churches. National flags were hung throughout the church, covering religious paintings, and patriotic imagery was displayed on a large screen. Music and poems about the CCP was also a big part of the celebration. A member of the congregation said the first song sung was “Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China.” At a similar patriotic service in the southeastern Jiangxi Province, a frustrated congregant said “There wasn’t even one Christian hymn” in the service.
Participation in these services is mandatory. If congregants do not participate in the service, they are regarded as “resisting the government.” The overly patriotic services make many Chinese Christians uncomfortable, like they are being forced to worship the CCP instead of God in the very place they go to worship God.
Party’s Ideology Intruding in the Church
In addition to telling pastors what to think about Christianity and what to sing in their services, the training also instructed pastors on what to preach. A pastor who was forced to attend a training in Heilongjiang Province gave this report to Bitter Winter:
“There is a lot of pressure on us when giving sermons now. If we don’t say the right thing, personnel from the State Security Bureau can say we’re anti-government,” the pastor said. “All sermon topics must be submitted to the Religious Affairs Bureau for review. If it isn’t approved, the sermon cannot be given. Chinese culture must be incorporated into the sermon as per the government’s requirements. At Three-Self churches, this is how we have to talk about the Bible, because there are CCP spies in the churches. As soon as they discover that the sermon’s content is not in line with national requirements, we will be severely punished. We might have our pastoral duties revoked for life, so that we cannot serve as pastors at any church.”
One pastor who leads a church in Henan Province, located in central China, says he is required to spend at least 10 minutes of every sermon discussing traditional Chinese culture. Not only that, but he must also talk about traditional Chinese culture when explaining the Bible. He has also been directed to give sermons on patriotism and all the main Chinese traditional festivals.
In these trainings, pastors are instructed to incorporate core socialist values of the CCP and aspects of traditional Chinese culture into their sermons. One preacher told Bitter Winter he fears where this teaching will lead the church. “The Party’s ideology and traditional culture are intruding into the church, to make us slowly deviate from our faith,” he said.
Resisting these instructions from the CCP can be dangerous. While several Chinese Christians take to house churches (or Chinese underground churches) to avoid being fed the CCP’s party line at the services, such gatherings are illegal and have gotten several Chinese pastors and members thrown in jail. One pastor who tried to comply with the CCP’s demands was driven to despair to the point of dying by suicide.
One discouraged pastor said the current situation in China is “even more dreadful than it was during the Cultural Revolution.”