BEIJING (BP) -- China is raiding and shuttering churches, assaulting worshipers, destroying crosses and burning Bibles in escalating persecution of Christians under a Communist constitution that claims to grant religious freedom.
Police shut down the largest house church in Beijing Sunday (Sept. 9), the multisite Zion Church, Reuters reported. The Chaoyang District Civil Affairs Bureau told the church it was illegal because it wasn't registered with the government-controlled Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM).
A week earlier in Henan Province, federal and local government officials of various ranks stormed several churches and assaulted worshipers, it was widely reported.
Henan police raided a church and burned crosses, Bibles and furniture on Sept. 5, a Henan pastor told the Associated Press under condition of anonymity. Under new restrictions on religion that have been in place since February, Henan officials have closed churches, forced congregations to display the Chinese flag and pictures of Maoism founder Mao Zedong and current president Xi Jinping, and have sometimes taken Christians into custody, China religious freedom watchdog China Aid said.
China Aid is among groups denouncing the acts and calling on the international community to help China's persecuted Christians, who comprise 5.1 percent of the nation's 1.38 billion people.
"The massive clampdown against thousands of churches in Henan and the forced closure and total shutdown of the largest house church in Beijing, Zion Church, [represent] a significant escalation on President Xi's crackdown down against religious freedom in China," China Aid Founder and President Bob Fu said Sept. 10.
"Now that the Chinese Communist Party has started to burn Bibles and coerce millions of believers in the Christian faith and other religious minorities to even sign a written pledge to renounce their basic religious beliefs," Fu said, "the international community should be alarmed and outraged at this blatant violation of freedom of religion and belief, and demand the Chinese regime stop and remedy this dangerous course."
Religious persecution has escalated under the presidency of Xi that began in 2013 and is no longer subject to term limits, which the government dropped in March.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) condemned the persecution of Chinese Christians and other religious minorities there, including Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong practitioners.
"USCIRF is highly concerned by reports of Chinese authorities' escalating religious freedom violations," USCIRF said Sept. 11. "These collective actions ... signal an alarming escalation in persecution of citizens in China under Xi Jinping. USCIRF condemns the Chinese government's ongoing brutal and systematic targeting of religious communities for their beliefs."
Open Doors USA, which advocates for Christians in the most oppressive and restrictive countries, called China's actions "archaic."
"China wants to be seen as a world superpower, and yet, in their attempt to unite their people around the atheist Communist party, they've overreached and taken a huge step backward," Open Doors USA president and CEO David Curry said in a press release today (Sept. 12). "My prayer is that leaders from around the world will immediately and decisively confront China's actions before more damage is done. We cannot stand by as they wipe personal religious freedom from their country."
Open Doors ranks China as 43rd internationally where it is most difficult for Christians to live. More than half of the population there, just over 52 percent, claims no religious affiliation, according to the CIA's World Factbook.
In Beijing, Zion Church pastor Jin Mingri has vowed to continue leading his congregation by holding services outdoors. Jin voiced perseverance two weeks ago when the government told the congregation it would have to relocate, hoping, China Aid said, the forced relocation would automatically close the church.
On Sunday afternoon, about 60 government officials came with buses, police cars and fire trucks, sealed the church shut and confiscated Jin's personal assets and church items deemed propaganda.
"Churches will continue to develop," Jin told AP by phone. "Blocking the sites will only intensify conflicts."
Both unregistered house churches such as Zion and registered state churches are facing greater persecution, Jan Vermeer, Open Doors field director for Asia, said in today's press release. Confinement in labor camps is a possibility for the most vulnerable worshipers.
"Persecution varies from place to place," Vermeer said. "The Han Chinese [an east Asian ethnic group native to China] can meet in registered state churches or unregistered churches, but Christians who converted from the Muslim faith must meet in secret.
"We're still investigating the impact these new measures are having on local populations, but Han Chinese will be fined or their churches closed and other smaller, more vulnerable groups may end up in labor camps," Vermeer said.
In July, 34 Beijing house churches released a joint statement on the government's harassment and failure to enforce Article 36 of the Chinese Constitution, which reads "The State protects normal religious activities," China Aid said.