Prayers in the kitchen: Why religious groups fear a loss of freedom in China

China may officially be a secular state, but a new law that cites national security as an overriding priority is worrying Christian and other religious groups who fear they may become targets for the government, the CBC’s Saša Petricic writes from Beijing.

House churches will have to be registered or face heavy fines, police raids under new law

The house church led by Pastor Xu Yonghai from his apartment in a working-class area of Beijing was established in 1989, shortly after the Tiananmen Square democracy protests were crushed by the Chinese military. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

One by one, they climb the dim, concrete stairs to the third-floor apartment. They come here every Friday morning, about a dozen in all. They are the determined, the devout, the dissidents. On their way to pray.

Their church is a small studio apartment where Pastor Xu Yonghai lives in a working-class part of Beijing. A cross on the wall and a pile of Bibles in the kitchen are the only clues that this place is part of China's fast-growing Christian movement.

At least half of the country's 70 million adherents attend unauthorized services like this one, in thousands of these so-called house churches.

"In the official churches, the priests are under the control of the Communist Party," says Xu.

"We follow the words of Jesus. And if Jesus were alive, he wouldn't join the Communist Party. He would protest human rights and would probably be crucified again."

This house church was established in 1989, shortly after the Tiananmen Square democracy protests were crushed by the Chinese military.

Many of those who have gathered around Xu's dining table have been involved in anti-government demonstrations. Like Xu, most have spent time in jail.

At least half of the China's 70 million Christian adherents attend unauthorized services like the ones led by Xu. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

The police watch this, but so far they have not prevented it, as they have with other house churches.

Christian and other religious groups worry all such gatherings may soon be targets for the government, under a new, stricter version of the 10-year-old Regulations on Religious Affairs.

This one cites national security as an overriding priority. Beijing has not said when it goes into effect, but most assume it is already the law of the land.

Tighter control

The ruling Communist Party has always considered religion subversive and a threat to its power. The new law insists that all religious groups be fundamentally "Chinese" and free of "foreign domination," echoing another law passed earlier this year regulating charities and NGOs.

The new regulations will control religious organizations more tightly. Everything will come under greater scrutiny, from their finances to their gathering places and websites.

House churches will have to be registered or face heavy fines and police raids.

And for the first time, religious schools — whether they be Bible study classes, Islamic madrasas or Buddhist seminaries — will fall under the law.

A child stands as people attend prayers for the Eid al-Adha festival at Niujie mosque in Beijing on Sept. 12, 2016. (Jason Lee/Reuters)

It applies to all five of China's official religious groups: Taoists, Buddhists, Muslims, Catholics and other Christians.

China's constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but lawyer Li Gui Sheng says that is often ignored.

He wrote a criticism of the new law that was signed by 24 prominent pastors and lawyers who all argue that Beijing has no right to limit religious beliefs and actions in this way.

Li says it gives police too much power to crack down, especially on house churches.

'Long way to go'

"We are a secular state," says Li. "What I see is lots of restrictions imposed onto people's freedom of religion, even as China claims it is protecting these freedoms.

"We see the government emphasizing rule of law, but in reality there is a long way to go before we reach that goal," he says. "The law should really focus on limiting the government's intervention."

Christian organizations say they have come under the greatest pressure in the wake of a forceful campaign to remove crosses in one province, making churches less visible.

Many of those who gather at Xu’s dining table have been involved in anti-government demonstrations and most have spent time in jail. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

But other groups also complain that the pressures are intensifying. This past week, parents in China's heavily Muslim region of Xinjiang were told they would be reported to police if they encourage or force their children into religious activities of any kind.

And in Tibet, one of the largest centres of Buddhist learning, Larung Gar, was recently targeted for demolition.

Beijing argues that it needs to act forcefully against fundamentalists and separatists in several regions in order to combat "terrorism."

In April, Chinese President Xi Jinping told a rare official conference on religions that authorities "should guide and educate the religious circle and their followers with the socialist core values."

He said groups should "merge religious doctrines with Chinese culture, abide by Chinese laws and regulations and devote themselves to China's reform and opening up drive and socialist modernization." 

'Lines are being drawn'

"In no way should religions interfere with government administration, judiciary and education," he said.

Many groups see this as a warning, if not an outright threat, saying the government's intentions often override the letter of any law in China.

"We're in a period where the lines are being drawn, and they're being drawn more clearly between what the government considers acceptable and everyone else," says Thomas Dubois, who has studied religion in China and teaches at the Australian National University.

Xu is not going to register his home with the government: 'What can they do to me that they have not already done?' (Saša Petricic/CBC)

He doesn't think the law gives authorities in China extraordinary new powers to do what they would not have done before.

"They're willing to use repression, very violent repression, when they think it's needed," he says.

But he also says even though Beijing is extremely sensitive to foreign influences and alternative ideas, at least "religion is being given a place. Not necessarily a place to thrive, but a place to exist."

That doesn't sound too comforting to Xu Yonghai in his Beijing apartment and house church.

But he is adamant.

"I am not going to register my home with the government," he says. "What can they do to me that they have not already done? If they say my home is illegal, we can go to someone else's house."

About the Author

Saša Petricic

Senior Correspondent

Saša Petricic is a Senior Correspondent for CBC News, specializing in international coverage. He has spent the past decade reporting from abroad, most recently in Beijing as CBC's Asia Correspondent, focusing on China, Hong Kong, and North and South Korea. Before that, he covered the Middle East from Jerusalem through the Arab Spring and wars in Syria, Gaza and Libya. Over more than 30 years, he has filed stories from every continent.