News China | 07 July 2023



Show: true / Country: China / China
In China, following Jesus can carry significant risk and restrictions. In some parts of China, Christians can worship mostly freely in even non-registered churches, while in others, believers can be monitored or, in rare instances, targeted for harassment or imprisonment. Such a large country is bound to have some varying degrees of openness—but what is clear is that the Chinese government has increased the intensity of restrictions across most of the country. 

In China, a “house church” is often a term used to describe any church that isn’t officially registered with the government. It can range from a handful of people to near megachurch-levels of attendance. These churches operate in a legal gray area—technically not permitted, but largely tolerated in many parts of the country. 

But a new online database that provides information about legally recognized clergy, will likely increase pressure on house church leaders. The “Query System for Islamic, Catholic and Christian Clergy,” launched on May 23 by the State Bureau of Religious Affairs, is designed to “promote the openness of religious affairs, as well as the identification and management of clergy,” according to China’s daily newspaper, The Global Times.

The online database features the names, photos and church affiliations of all church leaders that are registered with one of the state-sanctioned religious institutions. China has official networks of both Catholic and Protestant churches. 

In a statement on its website, the State Bureau said the database provided the public with information about “clergy who have been recognized and filed in accordance with the law.”

The move comes after earlier this year, similar databases were launched for Buddhist and Taoist leaders to “fight against fraud cases related to fake religious personnel,” according to the Chinese Communist Party’s daily tabloid. 

Though these databases were set up to allegedly help ensure openness and safety, many observers remain unconvinced. “It might seem that the system offers protection to the churches but, in reality all of their activities are monitored,” said Yuhua*, a local researcher for Open Doors whose real name can’t be given for security reasons. “A house church leader would rather take the risk of being labeled as ‘illegal religious personnel’ than being registered with the system.”

Under the government of China’s President Xi Jinping, surveillance of Christians and other religious groups has increased. The pressure on pastors of unregistered churches has growing in recent years as they face accusations of economic crimes, financial fraud or “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” 

Additionally, online restrictions have tightened access to Bibles. In March, Christians in some parts of Henan province were required to use a “Smart Religion App” to register before they attended church meetings.

“In what is frequently referred to as ‘one person, one file,’ systems are being developed and implemented, which can sort through a variety of data and databases and provide the authorities with a single comprehensive file on every resident,” according to Open Doors’ country dossier for China. “Although initial teething problems are to be expected, once overcome, this is a trend to watch.” 

The crackdown has not been all digital. On May 24, a pastor in Guangdong province  was arrested with three co-workers on suspicion of “illegal business operations.” This is on top of two additional arrests this spring, as reported by ChinaAid.

And now, there’s this latest database that will likely put pressure on any pastor or church who refuses registration. 

According to Thomas Muller, persecution analyst with Open Doors World Watch Research, the consequences from this latest action will likely be “indirect” for the moment—even as he notes that the future, effects of the database may not be quite so indirect. 

“It may, for example, limit their evangelization efforts, when people they reach out to start digging into the database to see if the pastors are registered,” he said. “It is another piece in a growing mosaic, though.”

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