The ruling Chinese Communist Party has stepped up a nationwide crackdown on Christians, raiding and detaining pastors and members of churches in several locations as urban authorities warn against public Christmas decorations and events.
Authorities are undergoing "one of the largest crackdowns on underground Christian churches since draconian amendments to the Religious Affairs Regulations went into effect in February 2018," according to the overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network.
In Washington, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) said the targeting of Christians is part of President Xi Jinping's bid to "sinicize" religious belief, by bringing it under the close control of the ruling party.
"We are deeply concerned by the escalating crackdown against Christians in China, including the forced closure of prominent Protestant churches, confiscation of church property and harassment and detention of church and lay leaders alike," CECC co-chairs Chris Smith and Marco Rubio said in a statement on the CECC's website.
"As Christians around the world prepare to celebrate Christmas, China’s Christians and other faith communities are under siege and treated as enemies of the state for daring to worship and peacefully live out their faith," they said.
They called for Chinese officials and others complicit in severe religious freedom violations to be held accountable by U.S. officials.
The statement came as police in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan issued a notice banning businesses from Christmas-themed events and forcing them to take down decorations.
Similar bans were also issued in the southwestern province of Sichuan, where police detained more than 50 members of the Early Rain Covenant Church earlier this month.
A notice from the Gulou police station in Yunnan's provincial capital Kunming seen by RFA banned Christmas-related decorations and activities in all bars, hotels, karaoke bars, internet cafes and other public spaces.
An employee who answered the phone at a nearby hotel confirmed that the ban was in place, although it was unclear whether it would extend to foreign guests.
"I have received that notice saying that we can't have such activities ... they're not allowed," the employee said.
Bans on Christmas observances
An employee who answered the phone at the nearby Xiqiao Hotel also confirmed that no Christmas events would be held this year.
But a hotel serving mostly foreign guests said it had been allowed to keep its Christmas tree in the lobby, and that Christmas dinner would be served on Dec. 25.
Repeated calls to the Kunming police department's local branch went unconnected during office hours on Thursday.
Authorities in the eastern province of Shandong had issued similar bans, local sources told RFA.
And a Christian church member in the northern province of Hebei said the "chengguan" urban management police in Langfang city had banned Christmas promotional activities in shops, as well as decorations and public performances.
"There government has rules about this; you can't have anything like that on the streets," the church member said. "It's something to do with religious policies ... that religion should be more Chinese."
Security had also been stepped up during the Christmas period, which isn't an official holiday in China, with police asked to work extra shifts, the church member said.
"The government says these are necessary security measures in order to maintain law and order, the church member said.
An officer who answered the phone at the Langfang urban management police confirmed the ban.
"The authorities don't encourage Christmas ... our municipal government said nothing should be placed outside, because that affects the city, and there are potential safety hazards with the power supply to Christmas trees," the officer said.
Rapid growth raises fears
Ying Fuk-tsang, dean of the School of Theology at Chung Chi College, part of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the authorities are nervous at the rapid growth in the number of unofficial Protestant "house churches" in recent years.
"They are really worried about the growth of Christianity, because it has been faster than many other religions in China," Ying told RFA.
He said official figures published earlier this year showed a 60 percent rise in the number of Protestant believers since 2008.
"This is a huge number of people, and house churches are growing fast, so the authorities have banned them," Ying said. "They are also targeting children of under 18, because they don't want them to start going to church."
In Sichuan, CHRD counted a total of 24 people "detained or disappeared" during the Early Rain raids, 14 of whom were in criminal detention, three in administrative detention and seven missing, believed detained as of Dec. 20.
It said the crackdown on the Early Rain church came amid an ongoing official campaign targeting independent churches following the newly amended Religious Affairs Regulations, and subsequent dissent from such churches over state control of religious practices.
"Officials have required intrusive video surveillance equipment be installed in churches and church goer information be handed over, banned bible sales online, demolished churches, and suppressed a growing list of Christian communities," the group said.
Early Rain pastors were among more than 100 Protestant pastors who complained about the new policies in a public statement in September, it said.
The church's pastor Wang Yi, currently criminally detained on suspicion of "incitement to subvert state power," is a former Chengdu University professor, and has been outspoken in defense of religious freedom in China, including for Tibetans Buddhists and Muslims in Xinjiang, CHRD said.
Wang Yi and his wife Jiang Rong founded the church in 2005 and have since faced relentless police harassment and intimidation, it said.
Reported by Wong Siu-san, Lau Siu-fung, Sing Man and Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.