In mid-June, the Religious Affairs Bureau of Zhengzhou, the capital of the central province of Henan, issued a list of 42 requirements for places of worship to start functioning after the coronavirus lockdown has been lifted. On top of scrupulous adherence to the epidemic prevention measures, people who want to enter religious venues must register online, cross-referencing their health code, and provide their personal details, including name, gender, ID card, and phone number. Venues must intensify patriotic education and study China’s religious policies and other regulations, and implement the “four requirements.” Those that fail to meet the prerequisites are not allowed to reopen.
Similar preconditions have been issued across Henan. Congregations in the prefecture-level city of Luoyang were exhilarated even for the smallest glimpse of hope to gather again, despite strict provisions. A member of a local Three-Self church told Bitter Winter that she cried from excitement because she “had to stay from the church for six months.”
Despite many preparations, her church was not allowed to reopen because the Religious Affairs Bureau did not approve the preacher’s sermons about the heroes of the epidemic prevention, which he had to hand in ahead of time. When the preacher rewrote the sermons, fulfilling all the requirements, the reopening was still canceled. This time, the authorities claimed that it was because “the epidemic is severe in Beijing.”
“The nearby swimming pool already reopened in May. Why is it so difficult for the church to reopen?” the preacher was puzzled.
“None of the 11 places of worship in our area was approved for reopening,” a deacon in the church said with frustration. “We were busy preparing to meet the requirements for reopening, but the government made things difficult for us in every respect.”
Some religious venues managed to reopen, having overcome numerous obstacles. But the first meeting after a six-month break left many believers disappointed.
“Instead of a normal sermon, the preacher talked about the patriotism of medical workers during the epidemic, and their sacrifice to the state,” a member of a Three-Self church in Henan told Bitter Winter. “These things are important, but political things were discussed for half of the time. Many believers complained afterward.”
On June 14, the government of Yucheng, a county in the prefecture-level city of Shangqiu in Henan, demanded the preachers of state-run churches to give sermons in a unified style. They all were to extol President Xi Jinping for “the right way to lead people in defeating the epidemic” and praise China for its single-party rule while slandering the United States and other countries. “I had to preach as the state required,” one of the preachers said. “Otherwise, the church would not have reopened.”
Most local governments allow religious venues to meet only once a week, for less than one hour. So, after the patriotic sermon, hardly any time is left for religion.
“The government said that churches must preach about national affairs if they want to reopen,” a Three-Self church member from Henan’s Sanmenxia city commented. “With Xi Jinping’s speeches as the main content, it’s better for churches not to reopen.”
An elderly believer from Henan said that the Religious Affairs Bureau would ban anyone from preaching if they refuse to cooperate with the state. “Those preachers who agree to preach politics just want their churches to be reopened as soon as possible,” the believer explained. “But they are secularized instead. They have no way to retreat and become politicized.