Summary paragraph: Throughout the country, there continued to be reports of deaths in detention of religious adherents as well as reports the government physically abused, detained, arrested, tortured, sentenced to prison, or harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups for activities related to their religious beliefs and practices. Religious affairs officials and security organs scrutinized and restricted the religious activities of registered and unregistered religious groups, including assembling for religious worship, expressing religious beliefs in public and in private, teaching youth, and publishing religious texts. Falun Gong reported that dozens of its members died in detention. Reportedly, a Buddhist monk self-immolated in January in Haikou City, due to a land requisition dispute involving a Buddhist temple. International media reported an increase in control over religious activities in advance of the 19th Party Congress in October. Religious leaders and groups stated the 2018 regulations would increase restrictions on their ability to practice their religions, including a new requirement for religious groups to seek approval to travel abroad and a prohibition on “accepting domination by external forces.” The government continued to cite concerns over the “three evils” of “ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and violent terrorism” as grounds to enact and enforce restrictions on religious practices of Muslims in Xinjiang, including Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Hui, and Tajiks. The government’s repression of religious freedom remained most severe in Xinjiang and in Tibetan areas, according to media and NGO sources. According to reports, the government continued to extract unpaid labor, conduct indoctrination sessions, and closely monitor and restrict the movements of Uighurs to counteract what it considered “religious extremism” in Xinjiang.
According to Minghui, a Falun Gong-affiliated organization, during the year 42 practitioners died in custody or following release from prison due to injuries sustained while in custody. Minghui reported Han Hongxia died in March while in police custody. Officials of the Da’an City Domestic Security Office in Jilin Province arrested her in October 2016. Guards at the Baicheng City Detention Center reportedly tortured her for refusing to renounce her beliefs in Falun Gong. Minghui also reported that Falun Gong practitioner Yang Yuyong died in July in police custody. Authorities in Tianjin arrested him in December 2016. He reportedly suffered severe abuse while in custody, including sexual abuse involving 13 inmates who pinched his genitals and bit his nipples. By the time authorities took him to receive medical care, he was already suffering complete organ failure. His family reported his body as being black and blue and having traces of bamboo sticks under his toenails. Yang’s wife, Meng Xianzhen, was arrested with him and remained in custody at year’s end.
On January 10 in Haikou City, Hainan Province, Buddhist monk Shi-Wu Zong self-immolated and died in front of witnesses from the local ethnic and religious affairs bureau as well as officials from the social stability office. Bowen Press said his action was due to a land requisition dispute. Since the end of 2016, Shi-Wu Zong had protested an alleged illegal land transaction between government authorities and a local real estate developer. The real estate contractor hired workers to demolish a Buddhist temple to make way for new construction. Authorities accused Shi-Wu Zong of criminal disturbance of social order before he self-immolated.
On June 15, Radio Free Asia reported ethnic Kazakh Imam Akmet (one name only) died on June 4 in police custody in Xinjiang. According to sources in the region, authorities had detained him a week before for unknown reasons and said he had hanged himself. Sources reported authorities detained more than 100 of his supporters who spoke out about his death online. Earlier in the year, Radio Free Asia also reported that a Kaba (Habahe) County court sentenced an ethnic Kazakh Imam Okan (one name only) to 10 years in prison for performing traditional funeral prayers in accordance with Islamic customs.
According to July articles by ChinaAid and in Express, TSPM Nanle County Church Pastor Zhang Shaojie’s daughter said authorities beat him nearly to death after he appealed his 12-year sentence following four years of imprisonment. Zhang’s relatives said prison guards had tortured him, using methods including sleep deprivation as well as slowly starving him by giving him very little to eat. Zhang is a pastor in Xinxiang, Henan Province, in prison for “swindling” and “assembling a crowd to disrupt public order” for leading a group of Christians to Beijing to file a petition concerning his church’s land dispute with local officials.
In January The South China Morning Post and Radio Free Asia reported Christian Pastor Yang Hua (also known as Li Guozhi) of the unofficial Livingstone Church in Guizhou Province was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for divulging state secrets. The documents in question reportedly concerned a “crackdown” on his church. Authorities detained the pastor in 2015, and he spent more than a year in jail prior to his sentencing. Yang’s lawyers said authorities tortured him, did not treat his serious medical conditions, and threatened to kill him and his family. In late August authorities fined the Livingstone Church seven million RMB ($1.1 million) for illegally establishing a religious space. Pastor Su Tianfu and lawyer Huang Sha filed an application with the Guiyang Municipal Ethnic and Religious Committee requesting reconsideration of the decision. In 2016, authorities arrested Su and released him pending trial, but security services continued to follow him and pressured him to plead guilty to disclosing state secrets and to relinquish to the government the space the church purchased. Authorities released church deacon Zhang Xiuhong in August on a five-year suspended sentence. Reportedly, authorities targeted church leaders because they were unwilling to register the church under the TSPM. Authorities had previously shut down the church in 2015.
In a May court hearing, a judge ordered prosecutors to gather further evidence in the case of Chen Huixia, a Falun Gong practitioner in Hebei Province charged with “using an evil cult to undermine law enforcement.” Amnesty International said detention center officials tortured her and held her without access to family or lawyers since 2016.
According to Christian NGO ChinaAid and religious groups, as part of the government’s ongoing campaign of “Sinicization,” religious organizations reported a continued increase in detentions and arrests, especially of those not affiliated with a government-backed patriotic association. The most common charges included “illegal religious activities” and “disrupting social stability.”
Multiple media outlets reported an increase in authorities’ control over religious activities in advance of the 19th Party Congress in October. These controls included detaining persons for participating in religious rituals outside of officially sanctioned religious sites, arresting persons for disturbing public order, and increasing surveillance of religious sites and communities.
Human rights groups said the vague definition of “terrorism” and “religious extremism” in the Counterterrorism Law that took effect in 2016 and in the revised religious regulations that are scheduled to come into force in 2018 could be used to criminalize peaceful expressions of religious belief. Authorities often failed to distinguish between peaceful religious practice and criminal or terrorist activities, according to human rights organizations. It remained difficult to determine whether particular raids, detentions, arrests, or judicial punishments targeted those pursuing political goals, the right to worship, or criminal acts.
The Political Prisoner Database maintained by human rights NGO Dui Hua Foundation contained the following number of religious prisoners at year’s end: 308 Protestants, 277 Almighty God Church members, 107 Muslims, 30 Buddhists, and nine Catholics, compared with 207 Protestants, 366 Almighty God Church members, 66 Muslims, 21 Buddhists, and 23 Catholics at the end of 2016. The Political Prisoner Database listed 3,516 Falun Gong practitioners imprisoned at year’s end, compared with 3,322 at the end of 2016. Dui Hua defined religious prisoners as “people persecuted for holding religious beliefs that are not officially sanctioned.”
Falun Gong reported significantly higher numbers of its members being arrested and sentenced, stating on Minghui authorities sentenced almost 1,000 practitioners to imprisonment during the year for practicing Falun Dafa. During the year, authorities arrested and charged at least 50 persons with “using an evil cult to undermine law enforcement.” International Falun Gong-affiliated NGOs and international media reported detentions of Falun Gong practitioners continued to increase around “sensitive” dates. Authorities instructed neighborhood communities to report Falun Gong members to officials and offered monetary rewards to citizens who informed on Falun Gong practitioners.
Radio Free Asia reported authorities in Burultokay (Fuhai) County, Xinjiang, sentenced ethnic Kazakh Manat Hamit to 16 years in prison on an ethnic hatred charge at a May secret trial after authorities found audio files of Quranic recitations on his computer. Authorities reportedly refused to provide his family information regarding his trial and did not accept the lawyer hired for his appeal, which a court rejected in July.
According to ChinaAid as reported by The Christian Post in January, individuals reportedly connected to the government beat a group of Christians from Fuxing Church in Hebei Province after the church refused local officials’ pressure to sign a land transfer that would remove the congregation from the space. Several of the Christians were subsequently hospitalized.
In January authorities detained more than 80 Christians affiliated with the Protestant house church network Fangcheng Fellowship across Xinjiang Province for worshipping in house churches, according to The Christian Post. Some of those arrested were charged with “engaging in religious activities at nonreligious sites.”
According to The Christian Post, local authorities in Xinjiang arrested Ma Huichao in January for holding a Bible study in her home. They charged her with “gathering a crowd to disturb public order” and sentenced her to three years in prison. In October Radio Free Asia reported that Xinjiang authorities had detained three grandchildren of Qurban Barat, a deceased ethnic Uighur imam in Hotan (Hetian) Prefecture. Authorities charged them with “religious violations” and possession of illegal religious material, sentencing two to six years in prison and the third to five and a half years. They had given a fourth grandson an eight-year prison sentence in 2015 for the same charges.
In January authorities formally arrested Pastor Gu “Joseph” Yuese, the former pastor of Chongyi Church in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, one of the country’s largest TSPM churches, on embezzlement charges his supporters said authorities fabricated to punish him for publicly opposing Zhejiang’s cross demolition campaign. On December 24, prosecutors withdrew the charges and released Gu. Authorities barred him from returning to his pastoral duties after his release. This was the second time authorities detained Gu on embezzlement charges in as many years. In January 2016 authorities had removed Gu from his pastoral duties and placed him under criminal detention for suspected embezzlement of church funds, but released him on bail in March 2016.
According to ChinaAid, authorities jailed five Christians in March in Liaoning Province and subsequently sentenced them to three to seven years in prison for buying and selling “officially forbidden Christian devotional books.” Although their church, Chaoguang Village Christian Gathering Place, is officially registered with the TSPM, authorities said they were conducting illegal business because they intended to make a profit from their activities. Authorities closed the church.
ChinaAid said police detained two Christians, Zhou Jinxia from Dalian, Liaoning Province, and Shi Xinhong from Bengbu, Anhui Province, after they attempted to pray at the Great Hall of the People at the beginning of the National People’s Congress on March 5. Authorities detained Zhou for 10 days in 2016 for holding religious signs outside CCP headquarters.
In March authorities detained at least 14 members of a 90-member house church in Langzhong City, Sichuan Province, for 15 days. According to ChinaAid, authorities also confiscated items belonging to the house church. Police charged the members with the crime of “illegal congregation.”
In April authorities in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, briefly detained a group of Christian worshippers and Taiwan Pastor Xu Rongzhang for singing a Christian song – an activity authorities said was illegal. According to ChinaAid, police released Xu the same day, but kept his identification for a two more days. Police forced the local Christians to write letters of confession and told Xu not to hold gatherings of more than 10 persons.
According to a Voice of America report, after ISIS in Pakistan killed two Chinese missionaries sometime in May or June, Chinese authorities reportedly detained four church leaders from Zhejiang Province who had assigned the two to travel overseas. The families of the missionaries said after the arrest the government used their killings to suppress underground churches and Christians in the area. Civil society reported authorities told the families of the missionaries they should feel shame for how the negative publicity from the killings affected the country’s international image.
According to ChinaAid, police arrested Pastor Chen Shixin of Caili Church in Anhui Province in May and detained him for one month before formally charging him with “intentionally sabotaging public and private property.” On November 29, Chen pleaded innocent at his trial. During the trial, the prosecution said Chen damaged trees on a plot of land belonging to persons from the neighboring village. Chen said the land belonged to his church.
The Telegraph and BBC reported that in June authorities detained 18 suspected members of The Church of Almighty God (also known as Eastern Lightning), regarded by the government as an illegal demonic cult. In August 2016 authorities in Anhui Province detained 36 members of the group, accusing them of creating and distributing video content for the group.
According to ChinaAid, in July Guangdong police detained Pastor Tang Lili of Renyi, a five-year-old Protestant house church mainly serving migrant workers in a village in Jiangmen’s Xinhui District, and shut down the church. Police later searched Tang’s apartment and confiscated all religious items.
According to press reports, nearly every week government-backed groups in Ezhou, Hubei Province, harassed Christian house church members who met outdoors after local authorities confiscated the chairs and desks of their former indoor space on January 10. Also in January, according to ChinaAid, authorities detained six women from the church, including Hao Zhiwei, one of the church’s pastors, and a court sentenced each to 10 to 15 days of detention on charges of organizing unauthorized religious activities. Hao told Radio Free Asia reporters on August 14 authorities detained four Christians and beat them for five to seven days. On August 22, the government-backed groups beat five or six of the church members. Attackers dumped buckets of mud on the Christians, shot firecrackers at them, and beat one woman unconscious. One of the attackers reportedly told the church members, “Beating people up is my job.” Local police reportedly refused to intervene to stop the attackers or to press charges. In December 2016 local authorities warned the house church members their group violated the Regulation on Religious Affairs because it organized religious activities without the government’s approval, and said they should cease their religious activities.
In Shanxi Province, dozens of Catholics reportedly sustained injuries in August when trying to block bulldozers from destroying their church building, which belonged to the local diocese, part of the officially recognized CCPA. Local officials announced the church and surrounding plaza would be demolished “to enrich the life of the people,” despite the issuance of formal appeals by parishioners, according to news reports.
In September authorities in Sichuan Province prevented “unofficial” Protestant house Pastor Wang Yi from traveling to Hong Kong. Wang said border guards had told him that he was detained because he represented a “threat to national security,” according to Radio Free Asia.
In September authorities in Zhejiang Province arrested Pastor Xu Shizhen, along with her daughter and three-year-old grandson, after the women performed religious services in public parks and squares, according to Christianity Today. Reports from October indicated that Xu and her daughter were transferred to other facilities while the grandson was held at the police station. Christian advocates reported Xu and her daughter’s whereabouts remained unknown. Authorities seized Xu’s former church in 2012 and handed it over to the government-sanctioned church.
The Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN) reported Father Lu Danhua of Lishui Diocese of eastern Zhejiang Province went missing on December 29. UCAN said officials of SARA took him from a priests’ dormitory and, according to a witness, the officials said they were going for a brief chat. On December 30, the witness went to SARA’s office where officials said they already released Lu, but he remained missing and his mobile phone unanswered at the end of the year. A source told UCAN that authorities had said Lu needed to go to Wenzhou for “re-education” on new religious regulations scheduled to come into effect in February 2018.
On August 9, Radio Free Asia reported there was no sign of ethnic Kazakh Imam Nurjan Mehmet whose expected release from prison was July 31. According to sources in the region, authorities had arrested him in August 2016 when a Muslim couple registering their marriage said he led a traditional Muslim nikah wedding ceremony for them. A source said, “This may be a local policy unique to Xinjiang. You have to first apply for a marriage certificate and then carry out the Islamic practice of nikah. The imams aren’t allowed to perform nikah if there is no marriage certificate, or they will be sent to prison.” Reports said Mehmet was serving a four-year jail term instead of the original one-year sentence.
According to Radio Free Asia, sources estimated authorities in Xinjiang detained hundreds of ethnic minority Kazakhs in the months leading up to December for “extremist” behavior that included normal Islamic practices. In December Radio Free Asia reported authorities in Xinjiang detained five Kazakhs for disseminating “terrorist audio and video” online. A regional official of the Cyberspace Administration said they detained 37-year-old Wu (full names not provided) on November 1 for possessing “terrorist video” materials on a cellular phone, 31-year-old Zhu for “making comments that promote ethnic divisions,” and 26-year-old “A,” 36-year-old Ye, and 26-year-old Tuo for “incitement to ethnic hatred.” Radio Free Asia said regional officials had recently investigated 10 similar cases in which they detained suspects for “promoting, storing, and disseminating text, images, audio, and video related to terrorist violence, religious extremism, ethnic separatism, and false rumors.” Radio Free Asia said authorities detained six Uighurs on similar charges in November.
Authorities reportedly continued to harass and detain human rights lawyers defending religious adherents, often forbidding client meetings and threatening revocation of their professional licenses. During the year, authorities tried and convicted several prominent Christian legal rights activists and lawyers on charges of subversion of state power. Authorities also harassed or detained the family members, including children, of religious leaders and religious freedom activists. Authorities placed some of the family members under travel bans, restricting their movement.
Police in Jiangmen, Guangzhou Province, arrested human rights activist and Catholic Church member He Lin after he participated in a seaside memorial for human rights activist Liu Xiaobo on July 19. According to He Lin, authorities offered to release him if he were willing to sign a “repentance statement.” Lin refused the offer and told his lawyer he would rather sit in jail than violate his faith by signing a false statement.
In September police detained human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who had defended members of religious groups, including Christians and Falun Gong members. Gao had previously released a memoir published in Taiwan detailing reported abuses he had suffered during six years of harassment from authorities, including abductions, followed by five years of detention and physical abuse in prison, such as beatings to his face with an electric baton. Gao and his family said that after his release in 2014, government agents continued to subject him to intrusive visits at home and deny him permission to travel for medical treatment.
Relations between the Vatican and the government reportedly improved early in the year before stagnating, while media and observers reported many cases of authorities surveilling, harassing, and detaining unregistered bishops and priests.
In January overseas media reported the Shanghai chapter of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) announced Shanghai Auxiliary Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin as a “supplemental member” of its executive committee, but listed him as “Father Ma Daqin” – not as a bishop. Ma reportedly remained under house arrest in Sheshan Seminary after resigning from the CCPA during his episcopal ordination in 2012. In 2016, there were reports that Ma had written a blog post saying it was a mistake to leave the CCPA.
According to several news sources, in April, before Catholics marked Holy Week, security officials took Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin away from his Wenzhou Diocese, marking the fourth time authorities detained him since September 2016. Authorities in Wenzhou City, Zhejiang Province, originally detained Shao, whom the Vatican recognized but who was not a member of the CCPA, in 2016 to prevent him from assuming control of Wenzhou Diocese following the death of Bishop Vincent Zhu Weifang. In September a photo of Shao in a Beijing hospital began circulating on social media. According to overseas media, the photo was taken at Beijing Tongren Hospital where the bishop was to have ear surgery. In October prior to the start of the Communist Party’s 19th Party Congress in Beijing, authorities moved Shao to Xining in Qinghai Province in the west of the country. Media reports said authorities pressured Shao to sign an agreement stating that he would support SARA and the state’s authority to appoint bishops, but Shao reportedly did not agree with the terms. According to reports, authorities continued to detain him at year’s end.
In Fujian Province, AsiaNews reported “underground” Catholic Bishop Guo Xijin was missing for a few days after meeting with authorities from the Religious Affairs Office on April 6. According to AsiaNews, the head of public security in Ningde said the Bishop “needs to study and learn” and would remain in custody for 20 days. Guo’s followers said he might have been pressured into joining the government-affiliated CCPA.
The Catholic Herald reported authorities raided an “underground” Catholic Mass at a community hall in Heilongjiang Province on April 20 to prevent an “illegal religious activity.” Videos taken at the scene showed police attempting to arrest the parish priest and the community’s lay preacher, as well as arguing with parishioners.
According to the UCAN, on September 17, a court in Gaizhou City, Liaoning Province, sentenced Catholic priest Fei Jisheng to 18 months’ imprisonment for stealing funds from a charity money box at a home for the elderly. The trial was not public, and court records were unavailable. Authorities had arrested or detained Fei multiple times in 2016 for conducting religious work outside his own diocese. In October 2016 authorities detained Fei on charges of stealing charity funds. Catholic community members said the real reason for his arrest was due to his work with the Apostolic Class, an illegal evangelical Christian organization. Authorities released Fei after five weeks of detention and a week of ideological retraining. Fei hired a local lawyer after his arrest, but the lawyer reportedly quit due to pressure from local authorities. Local sources stated Liaoning police authorities planned to punish Fei severely to regain the trust of the central government, which was lost when local authorities failed to stop a large underground gathering of Catholics in 2015.
While authorities officially abolished “re-education through labor camps” in 2013, advocacy groups and international media continued to report some camps had been relabeled and continued to house members of religious and spiritual groups.
In Xinjiang human rights groups and others reported hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims were forcibly sent to re-education camps, and extensive and invasive security and surveillance practices were instituted. According to Human Rights Watch, restrictions on religious dress and expression came into effect in April along with restrictions on giving children names with religious connotations. Authorities increasingly restricted travel for religious purposes, and continued to bar Uighur children from participating in religious activities. Radio Free Asia reported that officials stayed with some families for up to 15 days during Ramadan to ensure they did not fast or pray.
Authorities in Xinjiang implemented a campaign to force Uighur Muslims returning from abroad into re-education camps. According to Radio Free Asia, the director of public security in Korla’s Qara Yulghun village said those in the camps had to express appropriate remorse for traveling abroad before authorities allowed them to return to “general re-education” studies, and eventually allowed them to leave. Other reports said officials in Hotan (Hetian), largely populated by Uighurs, confirmed that higher authorities gave them a target of sending nearly half the area’s residents to re-education camps throughout Xinjiang. Many of these camps have been registered as “career development centers” to circumvent legal problems. Reports indicated authorities sent Muslims and some Christians from ethnic minority groups to re-education.
The government continued to seek the forcible return of thousands of Uighur Muslims living outside the country, many of whom had sought asylum from religious persecution, according to human rights organizations. The government continued to claim that Uighurs were criminals and not refugees, and some countries, including Egypt, complied with the government’s requests for the forcible return of Uighur asylum seekers.
Government authorities focused forced repatriation efforts on Uighur religious students studying at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt. The Financial Times reported Chinese government officials sent these students messages in May telling them to return home. Authorities arrested some of the students’ families in China in an attempt to compel them to return. Since July the Egyptian police reportedly arrested more than 200 Uighur students in Cairo, and the Egyptian government repatriated at least 22 to China.
Uighur Islamic scholar and professor Dr. Hebibulla Tohti received a 10-year prison sentence in May. According to Radio Free Asia, authorities compelled him to return from study in Egypt in 2016 to register with authorities in Xinjiang. Authorities said he conducted illegal activities by teaching religion to Uighur students in Egypt without approval, participating in a religious conference in Saudi Arabia without approval, and emphasizing the distinctive nature of Uighur culture in his doctoral dissertation. The government-sanctioned China Islamic Association provided financial support for his graduate studies and previously lauded his work publicly.
Radio Free Asia reported in November that authorities in some parts of Xinjiang had recently issued orders for ethnic Kazakh Chinese nationals to hand in their passports and Kazakh residence permits. Reportedly, authorities detained hundreds of ethnic Kazakhs returning from overseas study or family visits to Kazakhstan and sent them for indefinite terms to “re-education” facilities. One ethnic Kazakh in Tekes County said authorities placed him on a “wanted” list, along with some 60 other ethnic Kazakhs, for “returning to China after a long absence.”
According to Minghui, authorities continued to successfully force some prisoners and detainees to recant their beliefs, particularly Falun Gong practitioners, whom the government reportedly subjected to “transformation through re-education.” Authorities also failed to provide prisoners with adequate access to religious materials, facilities, or clergy. Prison authorities reportedly subjected detained Falun Gong practitioners to various methods of physical and psychological coercion, such as sleep deprivation, in attempts to force them to renounce their beliefs.
Religious groups continued to report the CCP interfered in matters of doctrine, theology, and religious practice in “patriotic religious associations.” Local authorities pressured religious believers to affiliate with patriotic associations and used administrative detention, including confinement and abuse in administrative detention centers, to punish members of unregistered religious or spiritual groups. Patriotic religious associations regularly reviewed sermons and sometimes required church leaders to attend education sessions with religious bureau officials. They also closely monitored and sometimes blocked the ability of religious leaders to meet freely with foreigners.
Due to the difficulty of fulfilling registration requirements, many religious organizations remained either unregistered or registered as commercial enterprises. Unregistered groups reported they were vulnerable to coercive and punitive action by SARA, the Ministry of Public Security, and other party or government security organs. In some areas local authorities allowed or at least did not interfere with the activities of some unregistered groups, while in other areas, local officials restricted events and meetings, confiscated and destroyed property, physically assaulted and injured participants, or imprisoned leaders and worshippers, according to reports.
SARA continued to maintain statistics on registered religious groups. According to statistics released in February, there were 21 officially recognized Protestant seminaries, 48,000 pastors, and 56,000 churches and other meeting places. According to civil society, there were 12 CPA seminaries; however, the government was reportedly in the process of closing the ones in Shanghai and Chengdu, Sichuan Province. Although there were two CPA seminaries in Beijing, civil society regarded one of them to be primarily used as the CPA’s propaganda for international visitors. There were 72 CPA-affiliated Catholic bishops, eight of whom the Vatican did not recognize, and three of those eight were excommunicated. An outside source estimated approximately 37 Catholic bishops remained independent of the CPA and continued to operate unofficially. In some locations, however, local authorities reportedly pressured unregistered Catholic priests and believers to renounce all ordinations approved by the Holy See. SARA also estimated there were 40,000 mosques, 50,000 imams, and 10 Quran Institutes.
It remained unclear how strictly authorities would enforce the revised RRA. Some experts noted while the text of the revisions appeared to indicate a harsher line towards religious activity, the last revision of the RRA was in 2005, and thus the revisions could serve to formalize policies and practices already in place, in addition to adding new regulations.
The government did not recognize house or unregistered churches, and continued to closely monitor their activities. Some officials reportedly still denied the existence of house churches or unregistered churches. Although SARA declared family and friends had the right to worship together at home – including prayer and Bible study, without registering with the government – authorities still regularly harassed and detained small groups that did so.
Officials across Zhejiang Province forcibly entered churches to install “antiterrorism” surveillance cameras, according to Radio Free Asia and The South China Morning Post. In some cases where church followers resisted, officials cut off water and electricity to the churches. Authorities beat some of those who resisted to the extent that they required hospitalization. The churches targeted for installation of cameras were often the same ones previously targeted for removal of unapproved crosses.
More than 10 government officials broke up a group of Christians praying at Olive Church in Guangdong Province on March 19 and accused the congregation of conducting religious activities without legal authorization. ChinaAid reported the police detained approximately 20 church members, releasing them later that day. ChinaAid also reported public security and religious affairs bureaus combined forces to target Huaqiangbei Bible Guizheng Church in Shenzhen during the year, confiscating church property. In response, the congregation dispersed to several satellite locations.
On April 20, police raided the Buji Church in Shenzhen, stating the church was operating illegally, detained Zhang Rongxian – the wife of Pastor Zhang Fei – and interrogated her for 15 hours. The police also conducted frequent fire inspections of church facilities and pressured the property owner to evict the pastor and his wife, according to ChinaAid.
ChinaAid reported on several actions in May. On May 3, Dongguan local police raided the Zhong Fu Wan Min “underground” Catholic Church during its worship service, which two U.S. citizens attended. Police took 30 congregants in for questioning. Authorities released them the next day. Police officers beat Pastor Li Peng at the church and kept him in custody at the local police station. ChinaAid reported this was the second time in a year local police raided the Zhong Fu Wan Min Church.
On May 4, the “underground” Guang Fu Church’s landlord requested the church to move out of one of its locations in Baiyun District, Guangzhou. Local police also denied Pastor Ma Ke and some of his church members’ applications for residency permits.
On May 12, in Xiamen, local authorities banned the River of Life Berean Church and the Berean Research Institute of Theology, accusing them of having Korean connections and setting up illegal religious meeting places. The local Huli District Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau also confiscated 1,345 yuan ($210) donated to the church, claiming it was illegal income.
On July 26, officials from the Guangzhou Municipal Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau summoned Ma Ke, Pastor of Guangfu Church, to the police station and told him the church could either become a member of the TSPM church or consent to “special personnel” monitoring the congregation. The pastor refused the first option, citing a belief that house churches and TSPM churches followed a different theology. The pastor said Guangfu Church had been a constant target of government harassment and surveillance over the past few years.
Security officials frequently interrupted the outdoor services of the unregistered Shouwang Church in Beijing and detained individuals attending services for several days without charge. Security services continued to closely monitor and harass church Pastor Jin Tianming, according to reports from advocacy groups.
Despite an overall tightening in spaces for unregistered churches to operate, in some areas, members of unregistered churches said they had more freedom than in the past to conduct religious services, as long as they gathered only in private and kept congregation numbers low. In some areas, however, authorities shut down churches that tried to maintain a low profile. Some unregistered churches reported authorities harassed and pressured their landlords to break property leases with the churches. Civil society reported authorities in one city forbade vacation Bible sessions for children during school breaks – a change from the previous year, while authorities refused to allow weekend religious education programs in numerous other cities across the country.
Churches nationwide continued to report stricter requirements on sermon content, design of buildings, and management of finances. Some local governments continued to restrict the growth of unregistered Protestant church networks and cross-congregational affiliations.
In Xinjiang, the government continued to cite concerns over the “three evils” as a reason to enact and enforce repressive measures against the religious practices of Uighur Muslims. Authorities typically characterized these operations as targeting “separatists” or “terrorists.” Police raids and restrictions on Islamic practices were part of “strike hard” campaigns, which began in 2014 and continued throughout the year. Local observers said, however, many incidents related to pressure on Uighurs went unreported to international media or NGOs.
Radio Free Asia reported in February that an official at the Xinjiang Religious and Ethnic Minority Affairs Bureau confirmed the government banned all Christian activities not linked to state-approved churches.
In January and February local authorities conducted a series of raids and arrests targeting Christian house churches in Xinjiang. Media reports indicated authorities used short-term administrative sentences in an attempt to pressure house church members to join government-sanctioned congregations.
On November 16, Radio Free Asia reported authorities in Tekes County, Xinjiang, searched the homes of 30,000 members of the mostly Muslim Kazakh ethnic group over several weeks, confiscating religious items they had ordered families to hand over in September.
During Ramadan in May and June, local authorities throughout Xinjiang imposed policies intended to disrupt Muslims’ observance of the fast. According to The Independent, these included mandatory 24-hour shifts for local government employees, the requirement that restaurants remain open during the day, and mandatory sports activities and patriotic film sessions for students on Fridays throughout the month. There were reports of authorities prohibiting university students from fasting during Ramadan.
Throughout Ramadan, authorities in Hotan (Hetian) Prefecture, Xinjiang implemented the “Together in Five Things” campaign during which authorities assigned local party cadres to stay in local residences. They observed families throughout the day and ensured they did not pray or fast. According to Radio Free Asia, an official said “During this period, [officials] will get to know the lives of the people, assist in their daily activities – such as farming – and propagate laws and regulations, party and government ethnic and religious policies, and so on.” Authorities required all Uighur cadres, civil servants, and pensioners to sign a pledge stating they would not fast and would seek to dissuade their families and friends from doing so.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs continued to deny international media reports stating authorities banned Uighur Muslims from Ramadan fasting, and said that religious freedom for Uighurs was guaranteed by the country’s constitution. Reports published on the official websites of local governments in Xinjiang, however, indicated authorities restricted or banned certain groups of Uighurs from observing Ramadan, including CCP members, their relatives, students, and the employees of state-owned enterprises and state-run organizations, and instead hosted education events about the dangers of “religious extremism.” Authorities also hosted morning sessions in order to ensure students and workers ate breakfast. Authorities ordered restaurants and grocery stores to remain open and serve alcohol during Ramadan, according to the website of the Qapqal County, Yili (Ili) Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture government.
Restrictions across Xinjiang that required worshippers to apply for mosque entry permits remained in place. Beginning in October 2016, authorities in several prefectures in Xinjiang further restricted movement by requiring residents turn their passports in to their local police station for an annual review. Ethnoreligious minorities also reported increased screening at airport, train station, and roadside security checkpoints.
The government facilitated participation in the Hajj, and Muslims applied online or through local official Islamic associations. Media reported authorities punished pilgrims attempting to perform the Hajj through routes other than government-arranged ones. Approximately 12,800 Chinese Muslims participated in the Hajj during the year, according to SARA, almost 2,000 fewer than in 2016. The China Islamic Association reported in 2016 Saudi Arabia imposed an annual quota on the number of pilgrims from China that was lower than those for other countries such as India, which was granted 175,025 during the year. Chinese state media said Xinjiang provided nearly a quarter of pilgrims, although independent sources say only 1,400 Uighur Muslims were able to participate. These figures included China Islamic Association members and security officials sent to monitor Muslim citizens and prevent unauthorized activities. Uighur Muslims reported difficulties taking part in state-sanctioned Hajj travel due to the China Islamic Association’s criteria for participation in the official Hajj program. The government confiscated the passports of Uighurs in Xinjiang, and Uighurs reported near universal failure in efforts to regain possession of travel documents. Age restrictions limiting Hajj travel to Uighurs over 60 years old also reduced the number traveling to Mecca, according to media reports. Those selected to perform state-sanctioned Hajj travel were required to undergo political and religious “education,” according to SARA and media reports. Uighurs allowed to attend the Hajj were also reportedly forced to participate in political education every day during the Hajj. Organizations reported the government favored Hui Muslims over Uighur Muslims in the Hajj application process. Muslims that chose to travel outside of legal government channels reportedly often risked deportation when they tried to travel through third countries.
Radio Free Asia reported the CCP on March 23 demoted a CCP official from Chira (Cele) County, Hotan (Hetian) for her having a Muslim wedding ceremony (nikah) in her home. A local Han Chinese official reportedly said the majority Muslim region’s regulations clearly stated weddings should not be at one’s own house, and that the village party branch secretary and a specially appointed religious leader must attend, because not doing so “might promote deviant views that contradict ethnic unity and the sovereignty of the country.”
Authorities continued to prevent any “illegal” religious activities in Xinjiang and prioritize Chinese language and culture over Uighur language and culture under the rubric of ethnic unity. Authorities promoted loyalty to the Communist Party as the most important value. Reportedly, authorities encouraged thousands of Uighurs to participate in ceremonies wearing traditional Han Chinese clothing, performing tai chi, and singing the national anthem.
According to media reports, in August authorities in Xinjiang arrested more than 20 ethnic Kazakh Muslim university students because they were wearing religious clothing and reciting daily prayers. Security forces closely monitored university students and forbade religious activity.
The government pressured students in northwestern Xinjiang to report information on their family’s religious practices to teachers, including identifying those in the family who prayed, attended religious ceremonies, or wore a hijab or beard. Teachers conducted these surveys annually and passed them to security authorities as a means to stop religious ideology from entering schools, according to media reports.
Hui Muslims in Ningxia, Gansu, Qinghai, and Yunnan Provinces continued to engage in religious practice with less government interference than did Uighurs, according to local sources. Hui Muslims reported they were free to practice as they wished with regard to family customs such as fasting during Ramadan, clothing, prayer, and performing the Hajj. They reported, however, they did not receive special accommodations for time to pray during their workday and were not given time off for Islamic holidays. They said they were treated the same as others in their community.
SARA conducted training for Muslim leaders at the local and national levels on religious regulations and their rights under the constitution. SARA officials stated they acknowledged the importance of cultivating the talents of religious leaders to promote the country’s social development.
Authorities continued to restrict the printing and distribution of religious materials. The government limited distribution of Bibles to CPA and TSPM/Chinese Christian Council entities such as churches, church bookshops, and seminaries. Individuals could not order Bibles directly from publishing houses. Members of unregistered churches reported the supply and distribution of Bibles was inadequate, particularly in rural locations. There were approximately 11 provincial TSPM Christian publishers. Authorities only allowed the national TSPM to publish the Bible legally. According to reports, while there were no independent domestic Christian booksellers, publishers not religiously-affiliated could publish Christian books. Approximately 20 distribution centers and bookstores were linked to the national TSPM. In addition, authorities reportedly allowed churches with more than 2,000 members to sell books at their church facilities. Approximately 700 churches had such bookstores. During the year, authorities continued to limit the number of Christian titles that could be published annually, with draft manuscripts closely reviewed. Authorities also restricted the ability of some bookstores to sell Christian books. Christian organizations seeking to use social media and smartphone applications to distribute Christian materials, however, reported the government did not generally censor such materials.
As part of the ongoing “Three Illegals and One Item” campaign, international media reported authorities in Xinjiang continued to confiscate Qurans and prayer rugs as illegal religious items. The campaign also included confiscating items containing religious symbols.
On March 2, Radio Free Asia reported local police intimidated Xu Lei, the spouse of detained Guangfu Protestant Family Church member Li Hongmin, after she petitioned the government in Beijing regarding her husband’s case. Xu had appealed on behalf of her husband, whom authorities charged with conducting illegal business operations for printing Bibles. Xu’s landlord evicted her at the end of March.
On September 14, officials in Shangqiu County, Henan Province, shut down a Christian-run academy for youth, saying it was “brainwashing” young persons. Officials also confiscated books and seized a computer and other materials from the academy, according to ChinaAid.
In October Radio Free Asia reported Beijing authorities closed an Islamic bookstore and publishing house. They also arrested the owner, a member of the Dongxiang minority group, on terrorism charges. The publishing house specialized in the production of materials related to Hui Muslims.
The People’s High Court, Public Security Bureau, Bureau of Culture, and Bureau of Industry and Commerce in Xinjiang continued to implement restrictions on video and audio recordings the government defined as promoting terrorism, religious extremism, and separatism. Authorities prohibited dissemination of such materials on the internet, social media, and in online marketplaces. As part of these measures, police randomly stopped individuals to check their mobile phones for any sensitive content.
There were reports authorities restricted the acquisition or use of buildings for religious ceremonies and purposes. Authorities continued to arrest and harass church leaders in Zhejiang Province where the government continued to conduct its “Three Rectifications and One Demolition” campaign, according to news reports. The campaign, which the Zhejiang provincial government announced in 2013, involved the demolition of church buildings authorities said were “illegal” structures. Christian communities reported many targeted churches had building permits and other official documents showing that the proper authorities had approved their building.
Numerous church officials, journalists, and commentators said the “Three Rectifications and One Demolition” campaign focused on demolishing buildings used by Christians. Church pastors and members of their congregations openly continued to resist official cross removals, including by forming human chains and replacing or reattaching crosses, resulting in repeated clashes and standoffs with police. Some observers estimated the government demolished as many as 2,000 crosses and buildings in Zhejiang Province since 2014 when the campaign began. LaCroix International reported that on September 20, local officials in Tanghe County, Henan Province, forcibly demolished the cross on top of the Holy Grace Protestant Church, an officially registered church. The cross caught on fire during the demolition. On August 3, officials in Jiangxi Province’s Shangrao City forcibly dismantled a cross from a church that was still under construction. This was the most recent of 10 cross removals in Jiangxi, according to reports.
In January individuals in Henan Province reportedly hired by the government raided the state-recognized Dali Christian Church, locked several church officials in an office, confiscated their mobile phones and threw away their phone cards, smashed and looted church property, and demolished part of the church with a front-end loader, according to ChinaAid.
In April the Guizhou Provincial Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau reported in 2016 it shut down 79 Buddhist and Taoist congregation sites and 254 Christian congregation sites in Guizhou Province, referring to these sites as illegal establishments and operations.
According to the Catholic News Agency, on May 5, 300 police officers in Shangqiu City, Henan Province, demolished a church, beat and shoved to the ground worshippers who tried to stop the demolition, and detained 40 worshippers. Local officials referred to the church as an “illegal structure” and ordered its demolition. They also said the church had not paid a “road usage fee” demanded by other villagers. Authorities detained the church’s pastor when he tried to discuss the issue with officials.
In June the Bazhong municipal government in Sichuan Province announced it shut down 10 religious congregation sites for failure to register properly with the government in accordance with the law.
In December authorities demolished a Catholic church in Xi’an’s Huyi District, Shaanxi Province, according to Radio Free Asia. Three hundred parishioners protested the action.
The government continued to restrict religious education in institutions across the country. Muslims and Christians also reported restrictions on their ability to speak about their faith among university students; the government strictly banned meetings of student religious organizations. Local public security bureau officials regularly warned religious student groups against meeting.
Individuals seeking to enroll at an official seminary or other institution of religious learning had to obtain the support of the official patriotic religious association. The government continued to require students to demonstrate “political reliability,” and political issues were included in examinations of graduates of religious schools. Protestant representatives reported that in TSPM-controlled seminaries, officials directed faculty to engage in “theological reconstruction” to make the Protestant doctrine conform to socialism. Both registered and unregistered religious groups reported a shortage of trained clergy due in part to government controls on admission to seminaries.
Baptist Press reported authorities in Zhejiang and Henan provinces notified churches they forbade religious education of minors, including Sunday school and church summer camps. Henan authorities reportedly said they prohibited church summer camps due to the potential health risk of excessive heat. In August authorities notified more than 100 churches in Zhejiang Province they banned minors from entering churches or participating in religious activities.
Officials continued to hold “anticult” education sessions and propaganda campaigns affecting schoolchildren and their families. Some officials required families to sign statements guaranteeing they would not take part in unregistered churches and “cult organization” activities related to Falun Gong as a prerequisite for registering their children for school. The media reported authorities forced government employees in Xinjiang to sign guarantees they would refrain from religious or political expression. The penalty for not signing could be a ban on their children entering university or an administrative investigation of the employees.
Authorities continued to allow some patriotic religious association-approved Catholic and Protestant seminarians, Muslim clerics, and Buddhist monks to travel abroad for additional religious study. Religious workers not affiliated with a patriotic religious association stated they faced difficulties in obtaining passports or official approval to study abroad.
Official media outlets often linked the ongoing anticorruption campaign to the religious or superstitious beliefs of fallen officials. These beliefs ranged from mainstream religious beliefs to fortune telling or soothsaying.
In May officials in a rural part of Zhumadian, Henan Province, banned gatherings of a house church and accused it of being part of a cult and practicing “heresy,” according to ChinaAid.
According to human rights groups, on June 12, police officers followed Ruan Haonan, who hosted Jiangmen Fengle Church Christian gatherings in his home, and detained him and fellow church members at the local police station. Officials interrogated them and ordered them to confess they had participated in an “evil cult” – a charge reportedly often levied against Christians for their church activities. Later that day, police forcibly entered Ruan’s apartment and arrested his pregnant wife Luo Caiyan. Police did not show her family any documents authorizing the arrest. Despite not mentioning any “cult” activities, police forced church members to sign a document as a condition of their release, asserting they participated in a cult. On July 13, police released Jiangmen Fengle Family Church Pastors Li Wanhua and Ruan Haonan on bail. On June 15, police arrested the church’s other pastor, Li Wanhua, on the charge of “sabotaging implementation of the law by organizing and using cults.”
Government policy continued to allow religious groups to engage in charitable work. Regulations specifically prohibited faith-based organizations from proselytizing while conducting charitable activities. Authorities required faith-based charities, like all other charitable groups, to register with the government. Once registered as an official charity, authorities allowed them to raise funds publicly and to receive tax benefits. The government did not permit unregistered charitable groups to raise funds openly, hire employees, open bank accounts, or own property. According to several unregistered religious groups, the government required faith-based charities to obtain official cosponsorship of the registration application by the local official religious affairs bureau. Authorities often required these groups to affiliate with one of the five patriotic religious associations.
Authorities allowed certain overseas faith-based aid groups to deliver services in coordination with local authorities and domestic groups. Some unregistered religious groups reported local authorities placed limits on their ability to provide social services.
Foreign residents belonging to religious groups not officially recognized by the government reported authorities permitted them to worship. According to policy, however, foreigners could not proselytize, conduct religious activities at unregistered venues, or conduct religious activities with local citizens at religious venues. In many cases, authorities prohibited citizens from attending the services of religious organizations permitted to operate for foreign residents. In some cases, authorities reportedly expelled foreign residents who attempted to conduct religious activities with Chinese citizens without government approval. Some foreign residents whose appeals for registration the government denied still met without government approval. On several occasions, police raided those meetings, with increased pressure reported during sensitive holidays.
In February international media reported authorities arrested and detained two South Korean pastors in Liaoning Province for assisting North Korean defectors in China. According to media reports, authorities also stepped up a campaign to arrest and deport Christian missionaries. Previously, authorities often issued missionaries a warning and allowed them one month to leave the country. Security services in the northeastern provinces more often arrested and detained missionaries, seizing their electronic devices as they did so, according to international media sources.
The government continued its efforts to restrict the movement of the Dalai Lama. In June the Ministry of Foreign Affairs protested the Dalai Lama’s series of lectures and his commencement speech at the University of California San Diego. After the Dalai Lama’s commencement speech, the China Scholarship Council announced it would no longer fund programs for visiting Chinese scholars intending to study or do research at the University of California San Diego.