Christians Caught Up in Increasing Repression in China’s Northwest

A file image of a Chinese police officer. There are reports of increasing suppression of underground Christians by police and government officials in China’s restive province of Xinjiang. (Image: pixbay.com)
A file image of a Chinese police officer. There are reports of increasing suppression of underground Christians by police and government officials in China’s restive province of Xinjiang. (Image: pixbay.com)

Chinese Christians who are unaligned with state-run religious associations are finding themselves targeted by the authorities who are ramping up “anti-terrorism measures” in China’s northwest.

A Chinese official told RFA that all Christian activities not linked to state-approved churches in the restive province of Xinjiang have been banned.

“They all have to worship in [an officially approved] church,” said the official, who was from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region government’s religious and ethnic minority affairs bureau.

One underground Christian in the province’s Shayar county told RFA that they had been warned by officials to stop their meetings.

“They warned us that we can’t do that, and that we’ll be charged with illegal assembly if we get caught and be locked up in the detention center,” the Christian said.

“It is now banned right across our whole region, including Korla and Aksu,” the Christian said. “If we meet, we have to do it in secret.”

A member of a Protestant church from another area of the province said some of their church members had been given short-term jail sentences for practicing their faith.

“We don’t dare gather for worship now,” the church member told RFA. “The police are saying it’s part of terrorism prevention in Xinjiang, and that they won’t allow gatherings of even a few people.”

The report gave further examples of Christians being detained, raids on underground churches, and Bibles being confiscated by police.

The atheist Chinese Communist Party has long seen religion as a threat to its rule. As part of that, the Party attempted to wipe out Christianity under Mao, but in more recent times it has focused on co-opting it through the Protestant Three Self Patriotic Association or the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA). The CCPA has no ties with the Vatican, nor does it see the pope as its head. Controversially, the Vatican is currently conducting secret negations with Chinese officials reportedly on the issue of bishop appointments in the country and on the CCPA.

Party leaders still see Christianity as a danger from the West and as Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, indicated, this is evidence of a broader issue.

“The Chinese Communist Party is violently allergic to non-party organizing vehicles, whether they’re nonprofits, libraries, or churches,” Richardson told The Washington Post.

Estimates from foreign scholars say there could be as many as 100 million Christians in China.

The Uyghurs

Action against underground Christians in Xinjiang occurs as Chinese authorities have ramped up their already severe repression of the province’s 10-12 million Muslim Uyghurs.

Uyghurs are an ethnic Turkic people who have long been considered to be generally moderate Muslims. Human rights groups say the heavy-handed communist authorities have long suppressed Uyghur religion and culture. For example, men under 60 are not allowed to grow beards.

Since the events of 9-11, Uyghur separatists have been labeled terrorists by the Chinese authorities. In recent years, Chinese state-run media has reported there have been sporadic bomb and knife attacks by so-called terrorists in the province and elsewhere in China.

While there been some reports of Uyghur’s joining radical groups abroad such as the Islamic State, critics say the Chinese government is overstating the threat from the Uyghurs.

Others, such as Sean Roberts, a scholar on Uyghur and Asian affairs, and director of George Washington University’s International Development Studies Program, say the regime has played a part in creating the problem.

Roberts told Pacific Standard that Chinese repression effectively turns more Uyghurs into militants, which in turn results in further crackdowns by the authorities.

“It is a vicious circle, which has made Xinjiang into a virtual security state where surveillance and the repression of independent thought is far more draconian than elsewhere in the People’s Republic,” said Roberts.

Included in its security measures, the authorities have in place a widespread surveillance program. As part of that, it was announced this month that all vehicles in the province will be required to have GPS tracking devices installed.

Thousands of armed security personnel and lines of armored vehicles also paraded through Urumqi, the province’s capital, on February 18. It was the third such parade of force in Xinjiang within a week, reported The Guardian.

The parades included mass oath-taking rallies.

In the past several decades, there has been high levels of immigration from China’s Han majority to the province. The Han ethnic faction now makes up nearly 40 percent of the province’s population of 19 million.

For more on the plight of the Uyghurs, see this episode of China Uncensored:

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