05/23/2022 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – As the 2022 Winter Olympics helped to demonstrate, China is notorious for its extreme censorship of online content, particularly any information that criticizes the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In fact, all content on the internet must pass through China’s Great Firewall, which filters out banned or censored material before it can be accessed.
Not only are Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Wikipedia, and some Google services blocked or limited, but families of Chinese persons who post dissenting content abroad are frequently arrested to pressure the owner of the post to take down the content.
In particular, religious content—frequently deemed as subversive to the state—on the internet is severely restricted and punished.
In March, new regulations from the Chinese State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) went into effect which further prohibit sharing religious content on the internet without prior government approval.
Now, unregistered churches and individuals cannot preach or provide religious education, broadcast religious rites, or share religious articles, pictures, or recordings.
Previously, most of these activities were already restricted or penalized, but because the new regulations codify existing punishments, some Christians are wary of what this means going forward.
To circumvent censorship, many Christians and church leaders have taken measures to avoid detection, though they are not always successful.
Some churches have set up Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) that do not route information to be sent through the Great Firewall, but VPNs are expensive and complicated to set up and maintain. VPNs were also recently banned, and you can be fined for using one.
However, it’s still possible to communicate religious content online. Popular messaging apps Weibo and WeChat are censored, so Christians frequently abbreviate banned words such as Jesus, Christian, and Christianity with the letters “JD,” which comes from the Chinese word for Christ, ji du.
If someone actually sends a blocked word, their account can be flagged and banned for several days or longer, depending on how influential a Christian the government believes that person to be.
A house church pastor in Zhejiang told ICC via a messaging app, “After March, we have continued to jh [gather] online. Things are mostly ok, although some of the [church] no longer dare to have their gatherings online.”
“I have not heard of Christians running into problems when they gather online. Some might simply break into smaller groups to avoid detection,” they continued.
Zoom meetings are still possible, with churches implementing increased security measures to prevent unwanted government spies from attending, but many pastors have been arrested for conducting church services over Zoom.
Another house church Christian in Sichuan, who is often harassed by the authorities, told ICC that he has to install a VPN to use a messaging app that is banned in China in order to discuss church affairs with other church members.
To gather, his church uses Zoom, since it is capable of hosting hundreds of participants at once. Although the government keeps watch of their activities, as Christians, they will not stop testifying for the Lord in public.
The church member asked the Western church to continuously pay attention to the situation in China and pray for the church in China.
According to ChinaAid, an elder for Early Rain Covenant Church was arrested shortly before hosting a Christmas Eve evangelical seminar in 2021. The same elder had previously been arrested while conducting a seminar on Thanksgiving of that year. In July of 2021, a pastor and an elder of Shenzhen Trinity Gospel Harvest Church were arrested during an online worship service. In April 2020, ICC reported that six leaders of Early Rain Covenant Church were arrested during an Easter Zoom meeting.
Because the goal of the CCP is to stop the growth of the church by removing and limiting church leaders, the CCP often targets pastors, elders, and deacons with charges of illegal business operations, illegal border crossings, subversion of state power, fraud, or illegal collection of money.
But punishment for these leaders is not limited to jail or imprisonment. Families of such leaders frequently face severe harassment.
For example, a government agent will request a pastor’s employer not to promote him or to simply terminate him if he does not stop leading the church. Or, a government agent will require a pastor’s landlord to pressure him to stop leading the church with the threat of eviction.
A symbol of increasing persecution of Christians in China, the new regulations attempt to further strangle churches that cannot meet in person due to fluctuating COVID-19 restrictions.
And, even without COVID-19 restrictions, churches in major cities cannot publicly advertise their church services, but instead must gather in secret under a guise, such as attending an “art show.”
As an alternative to communicating online, services can be organized over the phone, but influential leaders who are frequently under surveillance have their phones tapped.
Despite all of this, Chinese Christians remain undeterred and continue to preach, teach, and communicate in whatever ways they can, remaining resolute in the face of severe persecution.
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