While coronavirus restrictions may be lifting for state-approved churches in China, many find themselves facing an even more dangerous situation -- being told what to teach by an officially atheist authoritarian regime.
Catholic churches in the Chinese province of Zhejiang have been told by the state-affiliated Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association that Mass may resume this month provided churches preach "patriotism." This instruction is deeply problematic. To the Chinese Communist Party, "patriotism" means pledging your loyalty to the Party, which is increasingly hostile to religion under the leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Chinese churches are routinely pressured to conform to the government regulations geared toward re-enforcing the authority of the party and promoting its goals. Last year, state-sanctioned churches in the Shandong province were required to promote socialist ideology in their sermons and display propaganda posters that used Bible verses to promote China's "core socialist values."
Pastor Jin Mingri, who once led a large unregistered Protestant church in Beijing, described the growing problem to The Guardian in 2018, "Before, as long as you didn't meddle in politics the government left you alone. But now if you don't push the Communist party line, if you don't display your love for the party, you are a target... Of course we're scared, we're in China, but we have Jesus."
China's political leaders have long feared that Christians would mobilize against the Communist Party, much like Christians aided the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. Beijing seeks to mitigate this perceived threat through its long-term efforts to "Sinicize" religion.
In the wake of the coronavirus, things are looking even worse for Chinese churches.
In April, at least 48 state-sanctioned churches were forcibly shut down by authorities in one Chinese county alone.
The sight of government officials rushing to tear crosses from your church can be intimidating and upsetting for congregants. A Christian from China's Jiangxi province claimed that members of one church cried in distress as authorities removed their cross. The Christian reported, "Whether they demolish a church or a cross, everyone is afraid to challenge them. If you try to protest, they will accuse you of fighting against the Communist Party and the central government."
As soon as the coronavirus lockdown began to ease at the end of April, Chinese authorities were quick to resume an ongoing initiative to remove crosses from the exteriors of church buildings. This is merely the visual evidence of Sinicizing religion -- even church buildings start to look less uniquely Christian.
When Chinese authorities tear down crosses, they aren't just destroying meaningless symbols. They are destroying all outward representations of Christianity in those towns as they work to shape the contents of sermons from within churches, remaking Christianity in their own image.
When North Korean defector Joseph Kim fled to China, a Chinese woman told him to seek help at churches and that he could find them by looking for crosses on the top of buildings. It is disheartening to know that in the future, those in need may not be able to locate Chinese churches because the government has hidden them in plain sight, devoid of any traditional Christian symbols.
China has received a lot of bad press for their handling of the novel coronavirus. But among the bad decisions made by Chinese leaders, the world must also remember how China treated religious minorities during and following the outbreak. A pandemic should never be exploited to oppress religious believers, but China has done just that.