People leaving the church after a service in Shenyang, north-eastern Dongguang province. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)
China aims to close churches for “non-religious reasons” so it cannot be accused of suppressing religious freedom, says the St. Charles Institute. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

China’s churches are experiencing the worst persecution in 40 years, with a government which uses “non-religious reasons” and civil law to close houses of worship, according to the US-based St Charles Institute.

Pressure is applied “through opaque queries of fire-protection measures, by questioning the legality of printed materials used by the church, through harsh and unfair applications of business licensing requirements, and so on. The common feature of these legal tactics is the effort to close houses of worship for ‘non-religious reasons’, and in so doing, sidestep the accusation of suppressing religious freedom”, the Christian rights agency says.

Under the revised religious regulations, which came into force on 1 February, religious organisations in China have to register with the authorities to be able to meet and establish a place for religious activities.

The punishment for refusing to do so ranges from harassment to closure or destruction of church buildings.

Closure often follows a notice given by the landlord that the lease of the property where the church is meeting will not be renewed.

This happened to Zion Church in Beijing, a thriving church of more than 1,500 people who meet every Sunday on the third floor of an office building. It is one of the largest ‘house churches’ in the country and well known internationally. Now it has been threatened with closure by the government following its refusal of a request to install cameras in the auditorium.

According to the St Charles Institute the church was cut off from water and electricity for a short time following the refusal.

Then harassment began, said the institute, with the targeting of the church’s social media accounts. “On June 12, the official WeChat social media account of Zion Church was blocked after five years of consistent operation. Then, a series of similar removals of alternative WeChat accounts by Zion Church happened on June 14, June 20, June 28, August 4, and August 15. On August 2, the official video platform Youku account of Zion Church was also taken down,” the institute reported.

Meanwhile five of the church’s satellite campuses were closed, with a sixth also under pressure from its landlord.

“These acts of persecution of Christians are premeditated and systemically planned. Learning from past experiences, government officials at all levels deal with religious issues through civil laws that are non-religious in nature. These acts are attempts to avoid revealing the blatant persecution of the Church and the suppression of religious freedom. Terminating a church’s rental contract is just one such example,” the institute said.