International Christian NGOs say there’s a renewed crackdown against religion in China. It follows a boom in people turning to Christianity - many of whom worship in illegal 'house churches' to evade authorities.
In an old apartment building in Beijing, a covert gathering of a dozen Christians takes place every Friday. They meet to read the bible, pray and sing Christian songs.
“We’ve been questioned by the police before. Friday is a less obvious day for us to meet,” says Pastor Xu Yonghai.
Every other day of the week the apartment is simply home to Pastor Xu and his wife. But on Friday it becomes a ‘house church.’
“A few decades ago there was no such thing as a ‘house church.’ We had never even heard of Christianity. Now I believe there are thousands in this city alone,” says Pastor Xu.
And it’s this growth, says Bob Fu from the US-based NGO China Aid, which has caught the attention of the Chinese government.
“We definitely have been seeing a major deterioration and worsening. That has to do with the overall President Xi regime's hardening policy.”
According the official estimates there are about 23 to 30 million Protestant Christians in China, but Bob Fu believes there are up to 100 million unregistered believers.
The state only recognises the Protestant ‘Three-Self Patriotic Movement’, a government-aligned church based on the principles of “self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation.”
Freedom of religion is guaranteed in China's constitution, but many independent churches like Pastor Xu’s are outside the Chinese Communist Party’s control, “so they’re perceived as threat,” says Mr Fu.
Punishment against Christians intensifying
Last month Wang Zuo’an, director of China's State Administration for Religious Affairs, published an article in a Communist Party magazine banning religion for its approximately 90 million members. Wang wrote that "foreign forces have used religion to infiltrate China.”
Concealing his identity to avoid punishment for speaking out, human rights lawyer Wang Yuan (not his real name) specialises in cases involving religious freedom. He says in some areas of China local authorities are intensifying punishment for Christians found worshipping in 'home churches'.
Mr Wang says one of his clients from Xinjiang province was recently charged for 'disturbing public order' after holding a four-person Bible study at home.
“Disturbing public order usually refers to large gatherings in public places, such as protests etc. But these were just people in a private home reading and praying,” he says.
“Previously, people caught in home churches would be detained for 15 days at most. Now they’re being charged and sentenced to three, four or five years in jail. Even six and seven years.”
But Wang Yuan says the treatment of Christians varies throughout China.
“In some areas and cities the attitude of the local government is different. There are many Christians who can practice religion without too much trouble,” says Mr Wang.
But Bob Fu says churches previously allowed to grow unhindered have in recent years faced intense scrutiny, or have been destroyed.
Crackdown nothing compared to decades before
In May a church in China’s northeastern Henan province was demolished after being deemed an “illegal structure,” by authorities.
The congregation of about 40 Christians reportedly tried to stop the demolition and were detained, but not charged. Weeks before government officials in the southern Zhejiang province reportedly forced their way into a church to install surveillance equipment.
“These cases are very common, more and more so in recent years,” says Mr Fu.
Pastor Xu Yonghai says he’s aware of the risk involved in continuing to run his 'house church', but has no intention of stopping.
He is no stranger to being imprisoned for his beliefs.
“I've been arrested three times. The first time in the '90s I was sent to a labour camp for two years for ‘smearing the government’ in an article I wrote about the growth of Christianity.
"In 2003 I wrote another article about the treatment of Christians in the south, and was sentenced to two years in prison for “leaking state secrets”. In 2014 thirteen of us from our 'home church' were detained for one month because at one stage our congregation became too big and caught the attention of the police.”
“We’ve since changed locations,” he adds smiling.
Pastor Xu feels the current crackdown is nothing compared to decades before.
“There hasn’t been a day when a Christian in China wasn’t in jail. But Christians before us in the '50s were given lifelong sentences, they were in jail for 20 years. Compared to that, what we face is nothing, right? In some things you take two steps forward, five steps back. Right now we’re just in the five steps back stage.”