Chinese authorities in the restive northwestern region of Xinjiang have banned all Christian activities not linked to state-approved churches, launching a regionwide crackdown on unofficial worship in the name of "anti-terrorism" measures, RFA has learned.
Underground Catholic churches and Protestant house churches have been warned to halt all activity throughout the region, a religious affairs official confirmed on Thursday.
"Yes, that's right," said the official, who answered the phone at the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region government's religious and ethnic minority affairs bureau.
"They all have to worship in [an officially approved] church," the official said, indicating that both Catholics and Protestants are affected by the new measures.
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 belong to state-sponsored organizations.
But the ruling Chinese Communist Party, which embraces atheism, has stepped up controls over any form of religious practice among its citizens in recent years, putting increasing pressure on faith groups to join the Protestant Three Self Patriotic Association or the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which has no ties with the Vatican.
The administration of President Xi Jinping regards Christianity as a dangerous foreign import, with officials warning last year against the "infiltration of Western hostile forces" in the form of religion.
Rules already in force
Meanwhile, the new rules have already begun to be implemented in some areas of Xinjiang.
A resident of Aksu (in Chinese, Akesu) prefecture's Shayar (Shaya) county said that churches in the cities of Aksu and Korla had stopped meeting altogether, and that local people had been warned not to meet privately for worship.
"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 resident said.
"It is now banned right across our whole region, including Korla and Aksu," the resident said. "If we meet we have to do it in secret."
Authorities at the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps 31st agricultural regiment, part of a regional military-backed organization known as the bingtuan, on Feb. 19 ordered two house churches to close, local sources told RFA.
Both churches were raided by local police and by dozens of officials from the local religious affairs bureau, with 21 members taken to the police station for questioning, they said.
A member of a Protestant house church in the Ili (Yili) Kazakh prefecture told RFA on Thursday that local police had already handed down short-term administrative jail sentences to church members in the prefecture.
"We don't dare gather for worship now," the church member said. "The police are saying it's part of terrorism prevention in Xinjiang, and that they won't allow gatherings of even a few people."
"I heard that several churches in [Xinjiang's capital] Urumqi have been targeted. They are also going after people regarded as participating in evil cults," the church member said. "The police want our church to join the Three-Self Patriotic Association."
Many of those detained are followers of the Fangcheng Fellowship, one of China's largest house church networks, the church member said, adding that some, but not all, have since been released.
Chen Xiangyan, a house church member from Xinjiang's Wusu city, said she was recently held under administrative detention during a raid on her church group last month.
"At about five o'clock in the afternoon of Friday Jan. 20, 10 of us had gathered at our home for worship," Chen said.
"While we were in the middle of prayer, some police officers from Bashisihu came to our house, as well as the state security police, and took us down to the Bashisihu police station," she said, adding: "They held us until 2:00 a.m."
Chen said police released four sick and elderly church members, but held six on 15-day administrative sentences, which can be handed down to perceived "troublemakers" without the need for a trial.
"They interrogated us about the sources of funding for the church, and wanted to know who was organizing it and who was doing the preaching," she said.
"They confiscated our ID cards, and interrogated us again on Jan. 24 ... After we had served our 15-day sentences, we had to pay a fine, and I haven't yet had a receipt for that fine," Chen said.
Chen was accused of providing a venue and equipment, as well as organizing Protestant religious activity for church members Hu Qingyun, Zhang Mingfang, Wang Ying, Hu Hualing, Zhu Xiaohu, and others.
The six were fined 1,000 yuan each and the group's new Bibles confiscated, she said.
"They confiscated the lot, even though they were legitimate ones published by the Nanjing Publishing House," Chen said.
Zhu Xiaohu told RFA that the church hadn't broken any laws.
"They want us to join the Three-Self association, but we told them we couldn't because we don't understand their services," Zhu said. "We just got together by ourselves for prayer, preaching, and discussion. There was nobody else."
"But they said we were breaking the law, and wouldn't allow it," she said.
The crackdown on Christians comes as the Xinjiang authorities offered 100 million yuan (U.S.$14.5 million) in rewards for anti-terror tips, state media reported.
The rewards are offered for verifiable "operational inside information" on plans for attacks in crowded areas or at government and Communist Party departments, the state-run Hotan Daily said on Tuesday.
Local officials in Hotan confirmed the report to RFA on Thursday.
"That's right, there will be rewards offered as part of anti-terrorism measures," an employee who answered the phone at the Hotan police department said.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Lam Kwok-lap for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.