Christians in the U.S. might find it challenging to rely on livestreaming or Zoom meetings instead of gathering in person, but the Chinese government is preventing believers there from connecting even by those methods. Pastors who attempt to stream their services are finding themselves censored, their connections disrupted, and authorities are closely monitoring how individual Christians interact with one another online.
“We can’t get together because of the pandemic,” a house church preacher from Jiangxi province told watchdog site Bitter Winter. “Our first and only online gathering was blocked by the government soon after it started.”
The preacher attempted to hold the online service on February 9, when the government shut the service down. This was not the first time the church’s members had been persecuted by authorities. Before the coronavirus pandemic stopped them from meeting in groups, officials had compelled the congregation to change locations five times.
Chinese Christians Blocked, Censored During Pandemic
Bitter Winter reports that only state-approved organizations are allowed to stream any content that is religious in nature. However, even churches that the state approves—The Three-Self Patriotic Movement or the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association—face significant constraints, and many Chinese believers worship in underground house churches. As ChurchLeaders has reported throughout the past year, religious persecution in China has been steadily increasing. According to Open Doors’ president and CEO David Curry, China is currently the world’s greatest threat to religious freedom.
China locked down the city of Wuhan in Hubei province (where the coronavirus originated) on January 23 and officially lifted the lockdown Wednesday. However, the BBC reports, “Stringent lockdowns remain in place across other areas of China.”
On February 9, the same day the pastor in Jiangxi attempted to have an online worship service, a house church pastor in Shandong province also tried to hold an online service. The service, however, was cut off before it had gone 20 minutes. The pastor made another attempt a few days later, which also proved to be unsuccessful. On February 23, the Two Chinese Christian Councils of Shandong Province gave an order instructing all churches in Shandong to stop livestreaming.
Another restrictive order came down a few days later from the United Front Work Department (UFWD), which monitors groups that oppose the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). On February 28, the UFWD with the Nanhu district in the city of Jiaxing in Zhejiang province issued a directive “demanding to investigate online preaching activities in all state-run religious venues.”
The pandemic has also not prevented the government from continuing to destroy church buildings.
Religious persecution continues even in the midst of #WuhanVirus March 11 Xiangbaishu Church in Yixing city, Jiangsu province was destroyed by #CCP govt. Cross is our Glory大疫当前，江苏宜兴香柏树教会,于3.11日遭到强拆.举国上下深感人民的苦难，但谁知道在十字架上那位上帝之子的苦难？ pic.twitter.com/wp35ZexYIu
— Bob Fu傅希秋 (@BobFu4China) March 15, 2020
Individuals as well as churches are being censored by the CCP. The day after the Wuhan lockdown began, the pastor of a Three-Self Church in Henan province told several members of his church that they needed to get rid of their groups on WeChat, a Chinese social media app. Another Three-Self Church in Shandong insisted its members tell officials their names so authorities could track their comments in WeChat.
Bitter Winter also reports that three days after the start of the Wuhan lockdown, some Three-Self pastors in Shandong instructed church members that they should not criticize the government and that the CCP needs to approve any comments about the pandemic. The CCP in fact has tightly controlled and censored any online information about the coronavirus, as the New York Times reports here.
There is a silver lining, however, to the complex and challenging events Chinese Christians are experiencing. Fox News reports that believers in some areas of China have more freedom to evangelize since wearing masks makes it more difficult for the CCP to identify them via facial recognition technology.
As people in the U.S. continue to navigate the challenges posed by the pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis, let us not forget our brothers and sisters who are facing persecution in other countries. “The more the government persecutes us, the more actively we’ll share the Gospel,” said a Christian in China whose church was shut down last fall. “As long as we worship God, His temple stays in our hearts.”