Xu Shijuan stopped holding church gatherings at her house in China at the order of local officials.The 62-year-old Chinese shopkeeper had waited nearly his entire adult life to see his dream of building a church come true – a brick house with a sunny courtyard and spacious hall with room for 200 believers.
But in March, about a dozen police officers and local officials suddenly showed up at the church on his property and made the frightened congregants disperse.
They ordered that the cross, a painting of the Last Supper and Bible verse calligraphy be taken down.
And they demanded that all services stop until each person along with the church itself was registered with the government, said the shopkeeper, Guo, who gave his last name only from fear of retribution.
Without warning, Guo and his neighbours in China’s Christian heartland province of Henan had found themselves on the front lines of an ambitious new effort by the officially atheist ruling Communist Party to dictate – and in some cases displace – the practice of faith in the country.
Under President Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, believers are seeing their freedoms shrink dramatically even as the country undergoes a religious revival.
Experts and activists say that as he consolidates his power, Xi is waging the most severe systematic suppression of Christianity in the country since religious freedom was written into the Chinese constitution in 1982.
The crackdown on Christianity is part of a broader push by Xi to “Sinicize” all the nation’s religions by infusing them with “Chinese characteristics” such as loyalty to the Communist Party.
Over the last several months, local governments across the country have shut down hundreds of private Christian “house churches”. A statement last week from 47 in Beijing alone said they had faced “unprecedented” harassment since February.
A dozen Chinese Protestants interviewed by the Associated Press described gatherings that were raided, interrogations and surveillance, and one pastor said hundreds of his congregants were questioned individually about their faith.
Like Guo, the majority requested that their names be partly or fully withheld because they feared punishment from authorities.
“Chinese leaders have always been suspicious of the political challenge or threat that Christianity poses to the Communist regime,” said Xi Lian, a scholar of Christianity in China at Duke University.
“Under Xi, this fear of Western infiltration has intensified and gained a prominence that we haven’t seen for a long time.”
Officials once largely tolerated the unregistered Protestant house churches that sprang up independent of the official Christian Council, clamping down on some while allowing others to grow.
But this year they have taken a tougher approach that relies partly on “thought reform” – a phrase for political indoctrination.
Last November, Christian residents of a rural township in southeast Jiangxi province were persuaded to replace posters of the cross and Jesus Christ inside their homes with portraits of Xi, a local official said.
“Through our thought reform, they’ve voluntarily done it,” Qi Yan, a member of the township party committee, told the AP by phone. “The move is aimed at Christian families in poverty, and we educated them to believe in science and not in superstition, making them believe in the party.”
The poster campaign appears to symbolise what analysts see as the underlying force driving the change in the party’s approach to religion: the ascendance of Xi.
“Xi is a closet Maoist – he is very anxious about thought control,” said Willy Lam, a Chinese politics expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “He definitely does not want people to be faithful members of the church, because then people would profess their allegiance to the church rather than to the party, or more exactly, to Xi himself.”
Various state and local officials declined repeated requests to comment. But in 2016, Xi explicitly warned against the perceived foreign threats tied to faith, telling a religion conference: “We must resolutely guard against overseas infiltrations via religious means.”
Those who resist pay the price. After Jin Mingri, a prominent pastor who leads Zion Church in Beijing, refused local authorities’ request to install surveillance cameras inside his house church, police individually questioned hundreds of members of the 1500-person congregation, he said.
The congregants faced veiled threats, Jin said, and many were asked to sign a pledge promising to leave Zion, which the government agents called illegal, politically incorrect and a cult.
Some people lost their jobs or were evicted from rented apartments because police intimidated their bosses and landlords.
“A lot of our flock are terrified by the pressure that the government is putting on them,” he said. “It’s painful to think that in our own country’s capital, we must pay so dearly just to practice our faith.”