NANYANG, China — The 62-year-old Chinese shopkeeper had waited nearly his entire adult life to see his dream of building a church come true — a brick house with a sunny courtyard and spacious hall with room for 200 believers.
But in March, about a dozen police officers and local officials suddenly showed up at the church on his property and made the frightened congregants disperse. They ordered that the cross, a painting of the Last Supper and Bible verse calligraphy be taken down. And they demanded that all services stop until each person, along with the church itself, was registered with the government, said the shopkeeper, Guo.
Without warning, Guo and his neighbours in China’s Christian heartland province of Henan had found themselves on the front line of an ambitious new effort by the officially atheist ruling Communist Party to dictate — and in some cases displace — the practice of faith in the country.
“I’ve always prayed for our country’s leaders, for our country to get stronger,” said Guo, who gave only his last name out of fear of government retribution.
“They were never this severe before, not since I started going to church in the 1980s. Why are they telling us to stop now?”
Under President Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, believers are seeing their freedoms shrink dramatically even as the country undergoes a religious revival. Experts and activists say that as he consolidates his power, Xi is waging the most severe systematic suppression of Christianity since religious freedom was written into the Chinese constitution in 1982.
The crackdown on Christianity is part of a broader push by Xi to “Sinicize” all the nation’s religions by infusing them with “Chinese characteristics” such as loyalty to the Communist Party.
Islamic crescents and domes have been stripped from mosques, and a campaign launched to “re-educate” tens of thousands of Uighur Muslims. Tibetan children have been moved from Buddhist temples to schools and banned from religious activities during their summer holidays, state-run media report.
This spring, a five-year plan to “Sinicize” Christianity in particular was introduced, along with new rules on religious affairs. In recent months, local governments have shut down hundreds of private Christian “house churches.” A statement from 47 of them in Beijing said they had faced “unprecedented” harassment.
Authorities have seized Bibles, while major e-commerce retailers JD.com and Taobao pulled them off their sites. Children and party members are banned from churches in some areas, and at least one township has encouraged Christians to replace posters of Jesus with portraits of Xi. Some Christians have resorted to holding services in secret.
A dozen Chinese Protestants interviewed by the AP described gatherings that were raided, interrogations and surveillance. One one pastor said hundreds of his congregants were questioned individually about their faith.
Like Guo, the majority requested that their names be partly or fully withheld because they feared punishment from the authorities. After reporters visited Henan in June, some interviewees said they were contacted by police or local officials who urged them not to discuss any new measures around Christianity.
The party has long been wary of Christianity because of its affiliation with Western political values. Several Chinese human rights lawyers jailed for their work, including Jiang Tianyong and Li Heping, are outspoken Christians. So too are many Hong Kong pro-democracy activists.
“Chinese leaders have always been suspicious of the political challenge or threat that Christianity poses to the Communist regime,” said Xi Lian, a scholar of Christianity in China at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. “Under Xi, this fear of Western infiltration has intensified and gained a prominence that we haven’t seen for a long time.”
Guo, who keeps a small storefront selling ornate doors in a riverside district, once had eyesight so poor that he could not distinguish the sky from the ground. But after finding God at 27, his eyesight made a recovery that he attributes to his faith.
For decades, he, like many Christians in China, shuttled from one unregistered house church to another, where folding chairs served as pews and coffee tables as lecterns. Two years ago, he and 10 other Christians pooled their money to erect a permanent church on his property.
They are part of what experts describe as a spiritual awakening in China.
The number of Chinese believers of all faiths has doubled in two decades to an estimated 200 million, by official count, as the hold of the Communist party has weakened. Among them are an estimated 67 million Christians, including Catholics — a number that is expected to swell to become the world’s largest Christian population in a matter of decades. This rapid growth has reinvigorated the party’s longtime mission to domesticate a religion traditionally aligned with the West.
Historians believe that Christianity was known to China as early as the seventh century, and was later propagated by Jesuit missionaries starting in the 1500s. In recent decades, the religion has faced by turns heavy persecution and tacit acceptance.
During the Cultural Revolution, when Mao sought to eradicate all religions, Christians were jailed, tortured and publicly humiliated. But they survived by operating covertly and grew steadily in number after Mao’s death in 1976, when a populace disillusioned with the Communist Party began to seek moral guidance elsewhere.
Chinese Christians say the Bible gives them a sense of right versus wrong and the strength to endure in a country where power often trumps justice. While China’s rapid growth has brought prosperity to many, others despair at what they see as a deterioration of public morals. The deaths of children in scandals involving tainted infant formula and shoddily-built schools have led to the sense that modern China was in the midst of an ethical crisis.
“After the collapse of communist ideology, no value system has been in place to fill the spiritual vacuum,” said writer Zhang Lijia. “China has witnessed a religious revival in recent decades precisely because of this vacuum and relaxed control.”
Officials once largely tolerated the unregistered Protestant house churches that sprang up independent of the official Christian Council, clamping down on some while allowing others to grow. But this year they have taken a tougher approach that relies partly on “thought reform” — a phrase for political indoctrination. Last November, Christian residents of a rural township in southeast Jiangxi province were persuaded to replace posters of the cross and Jesus Christ inside their homes with portraits of Xi, a local official said.
“Through our thought reform, they’ve voluntarily done it,” said Qi Yan, a member of the township party committee. “The move is aimed at Christian families in poverty, and we educated them to believe in science and not in superstition, making them believe in the party.”
The poster campaign appears to symbolize what analysts see as the underlying force driving the change in the party’s approach to religion — the ascendance of Xi.
“Xi is a closet Maoist — he is very anxious about thought control,” said Willy Lam, a Chinese politics expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “He definitely does not want people to be faithful members of the church, because then people would profess their allegiance to the church rather than to the party, or, more exactly, to Xi himself.”
Various state and local officials declined repeated requests to comment. But in 2016, Xi explicitly warned against the perceived foreign threats tied to faith, telling a religion conference: “We must resolutely guard against overseas infiltrations via religious means.” And in April, the religious affairs department published an article saying that churches must endorse the party’s leadership as part of “Sinicization.”
“Only Sinicized churches can obtain God’s love,” the article stated.
Around the time authorities ordered Guo’s church to stop congregating in March, his district announced a crackdown on private Christian meeting spots.
Across Henan, house churches that once hosted gatherings of hundreds have now sealed their doors and split into groups of no more than a handful. Services are announced last-minute and held in different locations each week.
For a time, Guo’s church did the same. Authorities appealed to Guo to help gather information on his fellow Christians.
Guo’s brick house was largely deserted this summer. Around the door frame, tattered red outlines remained of a scroll that once read: “God’s love is as deep as the sea.” Inside, Guo has refused to remove the cross and other decorations, telling authorities they are within his private property.
Among them, pinned to a wall in the nave, is a bright blue poster that quotes China’s constitutional promise of religious freedom.