China's regime continues its crackdown on The Church of Almighty God, a group China banned as a "dangerous cult". In February and March, authorities arrested at least 325 members of the church "as a result of investigations in the name of epidemic prevention". One member said that the police had "threatened to send her to the coronavirus epicenter in Hubei Province to be infected if she continued practicing her faith". Pictured: Members of The Church of Almighty God commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, on June 4, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Since early 2020, China has been doubling down on its already extreme suppression of religious freedom, and the Covid-19 outbreak has done nothing to curb the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) enthusiasm. If anything, the virus outbreak has served as an excuse to crack down even more on freedom of religion.
In February, for instance, officials came to inspect whether a church in Henan province was implementing lockdown instructions, but, according to one church member interviewed by Bitter Winter, "seeing some bible verses written on a blackboard they said, 'China is the land of the Communist Party, and we are not allowed to hold religious beliefs'". The officials then "smashed everything in the venue and left, locking the door..."
The CCP also continued its crackdown on The Church of Almighty God (CAG), a group China banned and that it considers a "dangerous cult". Between February and March, authorities arrested at least 325 members of the group "as a result of investigations in the name of epidemic prevention". One member of the group, who had been released, said that the police had "threatened to send her to the coronavirus epicenter in Hubei Province to be infected if she continued practicing her faith". At the height of the epidemic in early February, authorities in the province of Shanxi "launched a special crackdown campaign against the CAG, encouraging masses to report on its members". A government employee from Anhui province said that he had been instructed "not to delay investigations into CAG members because of the pandemic: On the contrary, government personnel should use preventive measures as a pretext to enter residents' homes".
Members of CAG are imprisoned in "re-education" camps alongside Uyghurs and other Muslims, Christians and Falun Gong practitioners. One CAG member said that the Xinjiang camp she was sent to had 400 inmates, mostly Uyghurs, Christians and Falun Gong members. She was beaten, nearly raped and subjected to all sorts of torture as part of the indoctrination effort. Elderly members of CAG have been imprisoned and subjected to beatings and torture, despite being frail and ill. They are subjected to hours of indoctrination to make them sign papers saying that they will relinquish their beliefs.
Protestant house-churches have also been demolished. In February, a house-church in Guangdong province, which had been built mainly by seniors, was demolished and police arrested an elderly woman for five days for opposing the demolition. In April, officials demolished a church in Jiangxi province. Before the demolition, local Communist Party members told the congregation, "coronavirus was introduced from overseas, and the United States is China's enemy." In early April, police arrested a pastor, Zhao Huaiguo, in the central province of Hunan, who founded the Bethel Church, on suspicion of "inciting subversion of state power" for using a virtual private network (VPN) to access foreign news websites that are blocked by Chinese government censors. In early May, police raided a church service in the southeastern province of Fujian and violently beat many worshippers.
In 2019, according to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which published its Annual Report 2020 on International Religious Freedom on April 28:
"Chinese authorities raided or closed down hundreds of Protestant house churches... including Rock Church in Henan Province and Shouwang Church in Beijing. The government released some of the Early Rain Covenant Church congregants who had been arrested in December 2018, but in December 2019, a court charged Pastor Wang Yi with 'subversion of state power' and sentenced him to nine years imprisonment. Local authorities continued to harass and detain bishops...who refused to join the state-affiliated Catholic association. Several local governments, including Guangzho city, offered cash bounties for individuals who informed on underground churches. In addition, authorities across the country have removed crosses from churches, banned youth under the age of 18 from participating in religious services, and replaced images of Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary with pictures of President Xi Jinping".
The CCP is even targeting the state-run "Three-Self" Protestant churches, which have already been forced to incorporate CCP propaganda in their sermons. In March, more than 200 officials and police officers showed up at a Three-Self church in Henan province and demolished it. When the elderly man in charge of the church asked why the government had destroyed it, the police viciously beat him, fracturing two of his ribs. They threatened to kill him if he "challenged the Communist Party again". In April, authorities demolished a Three-Self church in Xining for being "illegal". Throughout the coronavirus outbreak, the Chinese regime continued to remove crosses from Three-Self churches in Anhui, Jiangsu, Shandong, and other provinces.
The Communist regime also continues its destruction of Buddhist temples, such as one in Hebei province, in early March. The temple was destroyed for lacking "a religious activity venue registration certificate" even though the temple director had never been asked by authorities to obtain such a certificate. According to the Annual Report 2020 on International Religious Freedom of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, in 2019:
"The Chinese government continued to pursue a strategy of forced assimilation and suppression of Tibetan Buddhism, as demonstrated by the laws designed to control the next reincarnation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and those of other Tibetan eminent lamas. Monks and nuns who refused to denounce the Dalai Lama have been expelled from their monasteries, imprisoned, and tortured. During the summer of 2019, authorities demolished thousands of residences at the Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist center in Sichuan Province, displacing as many as 6,000 monks and nuns. In April , authorities closed the Larung Gar Buddhist Academy to new enrollment. Authorities also intensified a crackdown on possessing or displaying photos of the Dalai Lama, continued to monitor religious festivals, and, in some areas, banned students from attending festivals during their school holidays".
One of the members of USCRIF wrote in the report that, "Tibet is second only to Syria in terms of religious freedom and human rights violations. The situation in Tibet is worse than in North Korea..."
In addition to the demolitions of places of worship, arrests and general harassment of religious minorities, the CCP regularly imprisons members of religious faiths, alongside dissidents and a variety of other unwanted people in psychiatric hospitals for "treatment", where they are forced, frequently through torture, to take medication. One staff member in a psychiatric hospital in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region said that when members of The Church of Almighty God are brought in, the hospital starts the "treatment" immediately, without any tests or examination. A church member who spent 157 days in a psychiatric hospital said, "A doctor told me that because of my faith, I was a mental patient, and there was no need for further tests".
According to the Annual Report 2020 on International Religious Freedom:
"Independent experts estimate that between 900,000 and 1.8 million Uighur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and other Muslims have been detained in more than 1,300 concentration camps in Xinjiang— an estimate revised upward since the previous reporting period. Individuals have been sent to the camps for wearing long beards, refusing alcohol, or other behaviors authorities deem to be signs of 'religious extremism.' Former detainees report that they suffered torture, rape, sterilization, and other abuses. In addition, nearly half a million Muslim children have been separated from their families and placed in boarding schools. During 2019, the camps increasingly transitioned from reeducation to forced labor as detainees were forced to work in cotton and textile factories. Outside the camps, the government continued to deploy officials to live with Muslim families and to report on any signs of 'extremist' religious behavior. Meanwhile, authorities in Xinjiang and other parts of China have destroyed or damaged thousands of mosques and removed Arabic-language signs from Muslim businesses".
In addition to all of the above, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom concluded in its "Key Findings" for China:
"According to reports, thousands of Falun Gong practitioners were arrested during 2019 for practicing the movement's meditation exercises or distributing literature about their beliefs. Human rights advocates and scientists presented evidence that the practice of harvesting organs from prisoners — many of whom are believed to be Falun Gong practitioners — continued on a significant scale. In addition, there were widespread reports that authorities across China demolished Mahayana Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian statues they claimed were 'unauthorized'".
It is positive that the coronavirus outbreak has focused attention on China's irregular international behavior. The world, though, also needs to muster the courage and the will vehemently to protest the unspeakable human rights abuses that the Chinese Communist regime inflicts on its own population on a daily basis.
John Richardson is a researcher based in the United States.