Authorities in the central Chinese province of Henan carried out raids on four Protestant churches in the early hours of Wednesday, sources told RFA.Dozens of uniformed police officers and local officials raided the Glory Church in Henan's Nanyang city, church members said via social media.
They pulled up in a fleet of vehicles that included an ambulance outside the church at around 6 a.m., throwing a police cordon around the area, they said.
Then, they began tearing down crosses on two of the walls of the church.
Church members who approached the police to ask what was happening were grabbed and pinned to the ground, church members said.
Police then searched the premises and confiscated the church's public address system, musical instruments and Bibles, damaging other religious items as they did so, they said.
Similar raids were carried out in at least three other locations in Henan: the Jinlou Church in Tanghe county; the Hui Xiaoying Church in Tongzhaipu township, and Qiupo Church in Dongwangji township, RFA has learned.
Some church members who tried to prevent the raids were detained in the process, church members said.
An official who answered the phone at the Bureau of Religious and Ethnic Minority Affairs under the Nanyang municipal government referred inquiries to the police and local governments.
"If someone has cause losses or damage to property, then they can report it to the police who will investigate it as usual," the official said. "We don't micromanage individual places of worship or religious organizations; we oversee the entire city."
"They all have their own specific counties, cities, and districts to deal with the matter," the official said.
The U.S.-based Christian rights group ChinaAid said the raids come as the authorities systematically target churches displaying crosses in Zhengzhou, Nanyang, and Yuzhou.
It cited other groups as saying that the authorities plan to close or merge churches to ensure there are no more than two in any given county.
Exams and surveillance
Meanwhile, pastors and ministers are being forced to take exams testing their knowledge of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's rules on religious affairs, "core socialist values," and the sinicization of religion in China.
According to local believers in Henan, over a hundred churches and crosses have been demolished or shut down during the last month, with dozens of churches in Xinyang city raided, inspected, or having property confiscated in the last three weeks alone.
A Protestant church member from Zhengzhou city said churches are also being required to install surveillance cameras or face a criminal penalty.
"There is a county that is administered by Zhengzhou called Fuyang county, which had more than 50 Protestant places of worship," the church member said.
"Between 10 and 20 of them were told to close, and a lot of their crosses were destroyed too," the person said.
A church in Yulong township that had been designated an approved place of worship by the local religious affairs bureau was raided by the government, and officials confiscated its contents, the church member said.
"Even the approved Protestant churches are under constant surveillance by the police, because they have installed cameras everywhere; not getting them installed is considered breaking the law," the person said.
The Catholic news site AsiaNews said authorities are burning crosses in Henan and elsewhere in China in a bid to "create a Christianity with 'Chinese characteristics.'"
"Slogans praising the [Chinese Communist] Party and the values of socialism are exposed on religious buildings, erasing sacred images that are considered too Western," it said.
Adapting to socialist society
In April, the administration of President Xi Jinping asserted its control over all religious practices among its citizens.
"Religions in China must be Chinese in orientation and provide active guidance to religions so that they can adapt themselves to the socialist society," according to a white paper on religious affairs published at the time.
Religious believers must "be subordinate to and serve the overall interests of the nation and the Chinese people ... and support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party," the white paper said, which includes "integrat[ing] religious teachings and rules with Chinese culture."
Last month, authorities in Henan flew the red flag of the People's Republic of China over the Shaolin Temple for the first time in the temple's 1,500-year history.
Overseen by officials of the Chinese Communist Party's United Front Work Department, which is campaigning for religious groups to show their "patriotism," monks at the temple raised the red flag with its five gold stars at a "grand" ceremony.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.