China’s Crackdown on Online Religions Heightens Fears of Digital Persecution

Citing recent Chinese government regulations that forbid the posting of religious information on the internet without prior official permission, a leading social media platform has instructed a church in China to stop using the word “Christ” in its posts.

Crosses removed from Christian churches in China. (Photo from Bitter Winter)
Crosses removed from Christian churches in China. (Photo from Bitter Winter)

WeChat told Early Rain Covenant Church that its use of the word “Christ” in its account on the platform violates China’s internet regulations, according to Release International, an inter-denominational Christian ministry that works through local church partners in 30 countries to help persecuted Christians.

The regulations also forbid religious groups, schools and organizations from conducting online sermons without valid permits.

Early Rain Covenant Church is based in the city of Chengdu in China’s Sichuan province. It has been running a book reading group on WeChat for the past five years, according to a news report on a North America-based Anglican news service.

A recent Chinese-language post by the church featured two Christian classics—The Imitation of Christ, a Christian devotional book first composed in Latin in the early 15th century by Christian theologian Thomas À Kempis, and Exposition of the Christian Faith by Saint Ambrose, a 4th-century bishop who baptized Saint Augustine.

The listing of the books prompted WeChat, which had nearly 1.2 billion monthly active users in China as of the last quarter of 2021, to send the following to the Early Rain Covenant Church:

“The word ‘Christ’ you are trying to publish violates regulations on Internet Information Services, including, but not limited to the following categories: pornography, gambling, drug abuse, incitement.”

The only way around China’s State Administration of Religious Affairs regulations that came into effect March 1 was for the church to substitute part of the word “Christ” with a letter or a number.

Meanwhile, former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, has accused China of using online surveillance to clamp down on religious freedoms.

Speaking at a recent conference titled “Digital Persecution: The New Human Rights Frontier,” Brownback said: “We want this internet firewall in China torn down and we don’t want other authoritarian countries to put up such a firewall so that their people can’t get access to information.”

The conference was co-hosted by Open Doors, a group that monitors Christian persecution and provides emergency relief to Christians in more than 60 countries.

Its latest annual report, which includes a watch list of the top 20 countries where Christians are systematically and severely persecuted, describes surveillance in China as “among the most oppressive and sophisticated in the world,” and states that “Church attendance is rigorously monitored, and many churches are being closed down.”

China’s “influence on the world of persecution is also growing,” the report warns. “It is exporting the ideology and technology of oppression” to countries such as Myanmar, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and states in Central Asia, which have “emulated the Chinese model.”

“The Chinese authorities appear to regard social media as a threat to the state,” said Paul Robinson, CEO of Release International. “This Draconian regulation is intended to curtail any Christian activity online. … And yet the Chinese Constitution guarantees freedom of faith, which is the foundation stone of every human freedom.”


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The Church publishes this blog to help create a better understanding of the freedom of religion and belief and provide news on religious freedom and issues affecting this freedom around the world.

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China Christian churches Religious repression WeChat