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Churchgoers attend mass near the city of Taiyuan, Shanxi province. Christian groups have criticised authorities after reports of a plan to ban religious worship near the G20 summit. Photograph: Jason Lee/Reuters
Tom Phillips in Beijing
Friday 22 July 2016
Chinese authorities have reportedly ordered the closure of churches in the eastern city hosting the G20 summit later this year to “create a safe environment” for world leaders when they meet.
Heads of state will fly into Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province, in early September for the two-day meeting hosted by the Chinese president, Xi Jinping.
In an effort to reduce congestion, local officials have declared a week-long public holiday to coincide with the G20 summit and are reportedly trying to convince thousands of residents to leave town.
Now reports have emerged that authorities are also banning religious worship during the annual summit.
The Global Times, a Communist party-run tabloid, said Xiaoshan, a district in south-east Hangzhou where the G20 meeting will be held, had outlawed large-scale religious activities until four days after the event. It said the move was an attempt “to create a safe environment for the meeting”.
One Hangzhou pastor told the newspaper authorities had shut down a number of underground “house churches” in the city.
Another report, by the US-backed news service Radio Free Asia, said the city’s unofficial churches had been ordered to stop gathering.
“They have been forcing house churches not to meet ahead of the G20 summit,” said Zhang Mingxuan, the outspoken president of China’s House Church Alliance.
Li Guisheng, a Christian human rights lawyer, criticised the move and said it had no basis in Chinese law.
“I cannot understand why they have done this… Worshipping God has nothing to do with the G20 summit.”
Zhejiang province is known as the most Christian region in China, an officially atheist country that is home to tens of millions of churchgoers.
Since late 2013 the coastal province has been the setting for a controversial Communist party cross removal campaign.
Demolition teams armed with sledgehammers, blowtorches and cranes have removed crosses from more than 1,200 places of worship, activists say.
Several churches have been completely torn down and bloody clashes have broken out between congregants fighting to defend the symbol of their faith and truncheon-wielding security guards sent to enforce the demolitions.
Opponents of the campaign have faced government retribution.
Gu Yuese, a prominent pastor from one Hangzhou mega-church who had spoken out against the cross removal campaign, was detained in January for allegedly misusing church funds and only recently released.
Zhang Kai, a Christian lawyer who also fought the removals, spent months in secret detention and was forced to make a televised “confession”.
On Friday, a Foreign Office report on the deteriorating human rights situation in China highlighted the plight of the country’s Christian community.
The report pointed to the destruction of a large number of Chinese churches, the disappearance of Catholic priests and the detention of Protestant pastors and their parishioners.
Chinese house churches were facing a period of “sustained pressure” from Beijing, the Foreign Office said.
Additional reporting by Christy Yao