Earlier this month, 530,000 people descended upon the Beijing auto show to gawk at new models and wrangle deals. In August, crowds gathered for a massive pool party in Wuhan, the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic that is now becoming a tourist destination. Across China, subway systems, restaurants, wedding halls and cinemas have largely returned to normal operation.
But at the country’s churches, coronavirus restrictions remain in place as authorities maintain stricter rules for places of worship, citing the risk of virus spread in a country that has otherwise largely returned to normal, with small numbers of new cases and a robust economic resurgence.
While a person looking for dinner or drinks can walk into a restaurant and find a table with no questions asked in most of China today, those in search of religious expression must provide their personal information to authorities in order to enter places of worship. Religious authorities have barred Christian churches from activities outside Sunday services, causing a fall in attendance across nearly a dozen churches reached by The Globe and Mail.
For China’s leadership, which voices support for religion but has sought to make belief patriotic, the pandemic has been “an opportunity” to restrict religious participation, said André Laliberté, who studies religion in China at the University of Ottawa.
“When you have a country governed by a political party that professes atheism as a basic philosophy that people should follow, it’s not surprising that the Communist Party would not look at churches as a priority.”
At Daoshengtang Church in the city of Nanjing, reservations for Sunday services begin on Tuesday, and the church must cap attendance at 200 for each service. In the past, 350 to 400 might come to a service, said Zhu Changping, who works at the church. “People are being affected by COVID-19, and we all hope things get back to normal,” Mr. Zhu said. For now, the restrictions are “the price we have to pay. It’s all understandable.”
None of the people interviewed by The Globe expressed dissatisfaction with authorities over the measures restricting religious observance. “It is the disease, rather than government, that should be held responsible,” said Zhang Hua, who answered the phone at Shengxintang Church in Guangzhou.
Nearly a year after the virus began to spread in China, a few other areas of the country remain under stricter epidemic control, including the prison system and schools. Universities have restricted the movement of students on and off campus. Elementary and high schools have limited campus access to students and teachers. Cinemas only sell tickets online in order to verify the real names of moviegoers, although most cities have no restriction on theatre seating.
Such measures speak to the continued vigilance by authorities determined to prevent China from experiencing a second wave of the coronavirus.
The registration of personal information, for example, has been widespread in China, required at shopping malls and residential compounds alike. But it has now largely stopped, as authorities ease pandemic measures.
The lingering restrictions for churches, meanwhile, are set against a backdrop of official pressure on religion. In parts of western China, construction continued through the pandemic on projects to “Sinicize” their appearance, part of a broader campaign to adapt religion in the country to Chinese dictates. Domes have been removed from many mosques, some replaced by pagodas, others by roof lines that resemble shopping malls or apartment buildings.
While restrictions on religious observance remain, religious leaders have been brought into “patriotic education” classes and ceremonies to bolster their allegiance to the Communist Party.
In August, more than 20 Catholic staff were taken to the Hongqi Canal in Henan province, a 1960s-era construction project now officially celebrated as a landmark spiritual achievement of early Communist China. The Catholic delegation was urged to “actively guide religion to adapt to socialist society,” according to a local government report.
In late September, every priest and nun in Xuzhou, a city of nearly nine million in Jiangsu province, was brought to a “revolutionary education base” where they admired the bronze statues of Communist notables. They then wrote messages expressing “selfless dedication to the revolutionary martyrs,” a local news report said.
For the Oct. 1 National Day holiday, churches, mosques and Buddhist temples held flag-raising ceremonies. State media published photographs of monks in robes with hands clasped in a gesture of prayer before the Chinese flag. The ceremony was designed to “make patriotic thought, national consciousness, and citizenship more firmly settled in the hearts of residents and believers,” said a report from Wuxi City, in Jiangsu.
At a Chinese-style mosque in Kunming, imams recited Ode to the Motherland and those gathered “together reviewed the great history and brilliance of the 71 years since the founding of New China,” Chinese media said.
“Under the premise of normalizing pandemic control and prevention, the Islam community of the whole city must stick to the path of sinicization of Islam, cultivating Chinese temperament, shaping a Chinese character, telling well Chinese stories and contributing to China’s strength,” Yunnan Daily reported.
On July 1, Christian leaders in Quanzhou, in Fujian, were also called to a flag-raising ceremony to mark the 99th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party. Churches in the city reached by The Globe said they did not resume regular Sunday services until mid-July.
Since then, restrictions have persisted across the country, leaving places of worship with unusual numbers of empty seats and unusually empty schedules.
Before the pandemic outbreak, Huayanxiang Church in Wenzhou held church gatherings four times a week. In early September, authorities allowed the resumption of Sunday services, but no meetings on other days, said Mr. Wang, a man who answered the phone at the church. He gave only his surname.
“Churches must follow instructions from superiors. Gatherings can only happen at the times they permit,” he said.
At Gangwashi Church in Beijing, attendance is half what it used to be, although the church also livestreams services for people at home.
Still, Cao Chao, a worker at the church, was understanding. “This disease is a disaster for all humans,” he said. “Our priority is to go through this together.”
With a report from Alexandra Li
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