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Xi Jinping Thought on Church pews

HONG KONG (SE): There was nothing unpredictable in the comments on religion in the opening speech given by the president of China, Xi Jinping, at the Nineteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China in the Great Hall of the People on October 18.
His comments had been signalled for some time in a series of new regulations that are now in place and ready to come into effect on February 2 next year.
On top of that there has been a gradual increase in surveillance of Churches, both registered and unregistered, and inside and outside the four walls of the buildings.
This has heralded a new manipulation of religions to ensure that it serves the ambitions of the Party and not particularly the people who sit in the pews.
Writing in The Diplomat on September 28, Eugene Chow, a foreign policy and religious affairs commentator, says that for some time the tactics used by the government to monitor and control the registered Churches has been forcing people to retreat underground into the unofficial communities of the Catholic Church and the House Churches of the Protestants.
In a sense, he notes that this has been self-defeating, as people have left the visibility of the registered Churches to opt for the greater freedom found in the shadows of the unregistered ones.
However, the government has responded with a crackdown, sometimes subtle and sometimes crass, on the unregistered congregations as well.
In addition, greater attention is now being paid to the content of religious services in both state sanctioned and unregistered Churches, with surveillance equipment being installed both inside and outside the four walls, partly to check on who is on the benches, but mostly to monitor the content of sermons and homilies.
“They want the pastor to preach in the Communist way. They want to train people to practice in a Communist way,” Chow quoted a House Church leader as telling the Telegraph.
Nevertheless, the pastor points out that the tactics work, as he also noted that it has an effect both on how he preaches and the topics that he chooses to talk about.
He pointed to some biblical stories and topics that he believes cannot be touched, like the story of Daniel, who in exile refused to worship the king as he had been ordered to, but instead reserved his worship only for God.
The Church leader described this type of story as being highly sensitive and even dangerous.
The pastor added that there is also pressure on him to throw in a few token words of Communist Party propaganda here and there, noting that a bit of praise for the president, Xi, does not go astray in the ears of his unseen congregation behind the earphones.
However, Chow believes that this is the type of thing that leaves people in the pews disaffected and encourages them to dig in further underground to seek an anonymity away from the public eye.
But despite these restrictions, Christianity keeps growing in China, with reliable estimates indicating that there are currently at least 93 to 115 million, but with only around 30 million attending registered Churches monitoring the whole Christian population is still a big challenge.
The government response seems to be prompted by fear of foreign influences having a subversive effect on the minds and thinking of Christians, which Chow believes is partly what prompted Wang Zuo’an, from the State Administration for Religious Affairs, to say it is “because the foreign use of religion to infiltrate the country intensifies by the day and religious extremist thought is spreading in some areas.”
Chow also notes that while the Chinese constitution states that all citizens enjoy the freedom of religious belief, the interpretation given to these words by Wang twists them in such a way that they can become a useful tool in maintaining the Sinicisation of religious faiths as a mainstream tactic to bring them into line with Communist policy.
He then quotes Wang as saying, “These rules will help maintain the Sinicisation of religion in our country… and keep to the correct path of adapting religion to a socialist society.”
Yang Fenggang, from Purdue University in the United States of America, believes that this is the reason that China is watching Christian Churches so carefully, as it is “still not sure if Christianity could become an opposition political force” for “western forces to overthrow the Communist political system.”
However, Churches are but one battleground where Xi has to fight to ensure that the Communist Party reigns supreme.
But the Church, which has survived repeated onslaughts of this kind over the past 2,000 years may be a more prickly customer than state universities, the media or even the military and require a more detailed attention.
While some see the ongoing dialogue between the Vatican and Beijing as a hopeful sign for the Catholic Church, little to nothing is known about the machinations that go on behind the closed doors and sealed windows.
Even the occasional disclosures from the Vatican secretary of state, Pietro Cardinal Parolin, or the odd official from Beijing shed light only on what they caste as the vogue for the correct political thought for the day.
The latest revelation came only a few days ago from Wang, who was dropped from the Central Committee in the latest reshuffle, in comments made to a Hong Kong commercial radio station.
In an update to an initial written reply to questions of October 21, Wang added on October 24 that although channels linking Beijing and the Vatican are running smoothly, some problems are just too complicated to expect them to be settled in the short run.
On the question that rightly or wrongly is presumed to be the number one topic under discussion, the appointment of bishops, he remained mum, but did clarify what is already known, that there is no chance that Pope Francis will visit China in the foreseeable future.
A comment in his first reply to the radio station about the Vatican diplomatic ties with Taipei prompted Taiwanese media to suspect that China is using the Vatican to force the issue of breaking off diplomatic relations, leaving the island state without a friend in Europe.
But for Xi Jinping Thought to take root in the pews of all religious communities on the mainland, the government may need to spend a lot more time fertilising the ground on which they sit before a favourable crop can be harvested.

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