A new online database has been launched in China, recording the names and details of church leaders. Some experts are questioning the purported intention of the database, suggesting it could be used for further surveillance and oppression for the persecuted Chinese church.
On 23 May, the State Bureau of Religious Affairs launched the ‘Query System for Islamic, Catholic and Christian Clergy’ – officially to ‘promote the openness of religious affairs as well as the identification and management of clergy’.
The online database features details such as name, photo and church affiliation of all church leaders that are registered with one of the state-sanctioned religious institutions, including the Three Self Church, an umbrella body for protestant churches.
In a statement on its website, the State Bureau of Religious Affairs said the database provided the public with information about ‘clergy who have been recognised and filed in accordance with the law’. The website can’t be accessed anonymously – users have to submit their mobile phone number as part of the process (to receive a verification code).
“It might seem that the system offers protection to the churches but, in reality, all of their activities are monitored,” says Yuhua, a local researcher for Open Doors whose real name can’t be given for security reasons. “A house church leader would rather take the risk of being labelled as ‘illegal religious personnel’ than being registered with the system,” he adds.
House churches, or any church group outside the tightly controlled and monitored Three Self Church, already face increasing oppression from the Chinese authorities. China is number 16 on the Open Doors World Watch List, and has moved swiftly up the list in recent years. Due to increasing surveillance and restrictions, many house churches ceased meeting in larger groups and have split into smaller groups. Others used to meet online, but this has become more difficult as Chinese authorities pay closer attention to online activities.
These restrictions intensified in 2022, when new measures were introduced that required any churches that wanted to share sermons or Bible studies online (including social media) to have a permit. Permits are only available to state-approved religious institutions, so house churches are excluded and posting anything online connected with Christianity comes with great risk.
The pressure on pastors of unregistered churches has indeed been growing in recent years as they face accusations of economic crimes, financial fraud or ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’.
On 24 May in Shunde City, Guangdong Province, for example, a pastor and three co-workers were arrested on suspicion of ‘illegal business operations’. Meanwhile in March, Christians in some parts of Henan Province were confronted with a ‘Smart Religion App’ that requires them to register before attending a church meeting.
The impact of this new measure is likely to be indirect for the time being, explains Thomas Muller, persecution analyst with Open Doors World Watch Research. “It may, for example, limit the evangelising efforts or rather their ‘effectiveness’, when people they reach out to start digging into the database to see if the pastors are registered,” he says. He also cautions for the future: “It is another piece in a growing mosaic, though”.
Christians are not the only faith being targeted with these laws, of course. Islam is mentioned in the name of this new measure, and it follows similar databases being launched for Buddhist and Taoist leaders earlier in the year.
Please pray for our brothers and sisters in China as digital surveillance and persecution worsen – that they will be able to continue worshipping God and sharing His gospel.
That churches in China will be able to continue meeting, worshipping and discipling together
That God would ‘make seeing eyes blind’, as Brother Andrew (founder of Open Doors), prayed, when authorities are surveilling Chinese churches.
For the good news of Jesus to spread in China, with no restrictions able to stand in the path of the gospel
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