Authorities across China are warning members of Christian churches not to try holding public gatherings to celebrate Christmas, church members told RFA.
Members of unofficial Protestant "house churches" in the southern province of Guangdong, the eastern province of Shandong and the southwestern provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan and Guizhou have been contacted by police and warned off holding any events.
"We are afraid to meet in public [because such meetings] have been designated illegal gatherings," a Shandong pastor who gave only the name John said on Tuesday.
He said the ban appeared to apply to churches that had so far resisted joining the ruling Chinese Communist Party's approved Three Self Patriotic Association for government-registered Protestant groups.
"We can’t do Christmas this year; we can’t have any activities on Christmas," he said. "We celebrated it a few days ago in different groups, whereas in the past we were able to celebrate it with thousands of people coming together."
A pastor of a house church in Sichuan surnamed Li said his church was under a similar ban.
"We're not allowed to celebrate Christmas here, and it's the same across the whole country," said Li, whose church has more than 1,000 members who have been able to celebrate together in previous years.
A member of a house church in Nanyang city, Henan province said his church had been visited on Sunday by officials from the local bureau of religious affairs.
"The church is closed now, so we are holding smaller gatherings in people's homes that they don't know about," the church member said.
"We hold Christmas in small gatherings, meeting early and in secret."
A pastor of Guangzhou's Guangfu Church said similar restrictions were in place on his church, and that Christmas decorations were no longer visible in shopping malls and other public spaces.
Pastor John reported a similar phenomenon.
"I went to the supermarket last night to see if I could buy any but I couldn't," he said. "This is the effect of forcibly eradicating Christianity."
On Dec. 17, a property management company in Yunnan's Kunming Economic Development Zone issued a notice to local businesses and merchants banning any celebration of Christmas, citing a police restriction on the grounds that it isn't a traditional Chinese festival.
And the Qianxi county education bureau in Guizhou issued a notice dated Dec. 23 banning Christmas-related events in any schools or kindergartens, whether state-run or private.
Meanwhile, China's State Administration of Religious Affairs is requiring churches in all major cities to issue tickets for official Christmas services, and to limit the number of participants.
The disciplinary arm of the ruling Chinese Communist Party has banned its members and government officials from celebrating Christmas, likening the practice to "spiritual opium" for members of the atheist party.
The party exercises tight controls over any form of religious practice among its citizens, yet China is home to an estimated 68 million Protestants, of whom 23 million worship in state-affiliated churches, and some nine million Catholics, 5.7 million of whom are in state-sponsored organizations.
The administration of President Xi Jinping regards Christianity as a dangerous foreign import, with officials warning against the "infiltration of Western hostile forces" in the form of religion.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Sing Man for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.