SCMP: Underground Christians in China use faith and tech to reach out to followers at Easter amid Covid-19 crisis
Churches use WeChat and Zoom to meet online while big gatherings are banned
China’s squeeze on Christian groups is stoking defiance among some followers
Kinling Lo and Viola Zhou
Published: 7:24pm, 13 Apr, 2020
Pastor Chen broke the bread and held the wine as he gave his blessings, following the Good Friday Holy Communion tradition that has been celebrated by Christians around the world for centuries – except there was no one to distribute the bread and wine to.
“We are facing a situation that has never been experienced before in the last 2,000 years,” said Chen (not his real name) to his congregation of about 1,000. They were taking part in an online service held over Zoom.
“Today we are separated in different places in our motherland and around the world. Maybe you are at home with your family, or even alone,” Chen said. “But we know that the coronavirus cannot intervene in God’s work in our lives, and our distance does not separate us from coming as one in Christ. We now commemorate Jesus who sacrificed for us.”
He then asked his congregation who were standing in front of web cameras to take the bread and wine, representing Jesus Christ’s body and blood in crucifixion, that was prepared at home by each of the church members.
Christian churches around the world have gone digital for one of their most important festivals – including Good Friday and Easter Sunday – that commemorate Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead. The digital path avoids mass gatherings during the Covid-19 pandemic that has infected more than 1.8 million people around the world, killing over 110,000.
In China, church groups have turned to WeChat and Zoom for their services since late January after religious gatherings were banned as part of the strict social distancing rules imposed to contain the virus.
The internet has provided a space for Christian communities to grow their congregations in a country where the government has intensified religious persecution and imposed stricter rules for managing churches.
Chen’s church is a house church, also called an “underground church”. In China, only state-controlled churches can operate legally, although some house churches can survive despite state surveillance and regular harassment by authorities.
Chen’s congregation was forced to disband as part of a crackdown on house churches, long before coronavirus hit the country. But with people confined at home during the epidemic, Chen’s church group has welcomed new members now that services are just a button away for believers who have never attended in person before.
In Wuhan, where the epidemic was first reported in China, prominent house church Root and Fruit Christian Church, has held daily prayers and Sunday services as well as Bible study groups on Zoom for its more than 500 members.
Since the city was put under lockdown in late January, Root and Fruit has also been active in providing support and distributed supplies to local residents.
Pastor Huang Lei of Root and Fruit said the church had received donations – including protective gear, daily necessities and some cash – that was estimated at more than five million yuan (US$711,000) in value.
Volunteers from the church have since been handing donations to underprivileged church members, hospitals, and community workers who have been in close contact with suspected patients.
Huang said some local officials had demanded the church stop distributing the donations and conducting online gatherings, but the members were defiant.
“We have already stopped offline gatherings to reduce the risk of infection … Why can’t they allow us to do it online?” Huang said.
“We cannot listen to everything that the government says, or we will get nothing done.”
The Chinese government has in recent years tightened control of Christian groups in the mainland, closing down a number of house churches, jailing outspoken pastors and stepping up surveillance of private religious gatherings.
But the clampdown could lead to discontent among China’s expanding Christian community.
Protestant Christianity has been one of the fastest-growing religions in China in recent years. Estimates of their number range from tens of millions to 100 million followers.
In an Easter greeting notice, the State Administration for Religious Affairs acknowledged the contribution made by Chinese Christians in following social distancing orders and carrying out charity work.
But it also asked Christians to follow the Communist Party leadership in the epidemic control, to suspend religious activities and “stay home during the Easter weekend”.
Fuk-tsang Ying, dean of the divinity school of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the Chinese government had been on high alert for the spread of the religion through the internet since Chinese President Xi Jinping took power in 2012.
A draft regulation titled “Internet Religious Information Management Measures” that was released for public consultation in September 2018 was a step towards indicating the stricter approach, Ying said. The measures, when officially adopted, would require all religion-related websites to be registered and monitored by the State Administration for Religious Affairs.
“No organisation or individual may broadcast or record on the internet by means of words, pictures, audio and video, or other religious activities, such as worshipping Buddha, burning incense, ordination, chanting, worship, mass, and baptism,” an article inside the proposed document said.
Ying said that during the coronavirus epidemic, it appeared that some local governments might decide to allow online church gatherings some leeway, while others might take a more heavy-handed approach. Virtual gatherings might become a survival tool for some house churches.
“After experiencing this period of time when churches were made to shift operation through mediums like Zoom, when things return to normal, religious groups may still explore the possibilities of using such platforms in the future,” Ying said.
Pastor Li (not her real name), from a southern Chinese province, said despite running a state-approved church, she also faced difficulties in her ministry.
“We are not organising anything special for Easter this year,” Li said. “It is surely a pity, we originally scheduled dozens [of members] for baptism on Easter Sunday.”
Yet, Li’s church has not acquired a licence from the government to live-stream or release records of its services, such as a few big state-approved churches in Shanghai and Beijing have done. It therefore relies on sending its congregation internet links to streamed services from other official churches and Bible schools in China.
However, Li also said there could be problems as believers became increasingly reliant on online materials that had been shared by sources from around the world. There had been cases in which believers “wrongly interpreted” certain concepts or became misled by cults that had elements of Christianity. And it could be more challenging for some elderly churchgoers to rely on a mobile device for access to church life than it was for younger people, Li said.
However, Li had witnessed how the coronavirus had drawn more Christians closer to their beliefs. The congregation now held small group meetings over WeChat every day, a step up in frequency from twice a week before the epidemic.
“I was worried that people’s hearts would grow cold,” Li said. “But I realise for many, they have got the time and space to reflect on what they really believe in at the time of an epidemic, in which they realise they cannot control even the most basic things in life – health, freedom of movement and this has made them even more passionate about their spiritual growth.”
Believers say the virtual churches have helped them survive the worst of the epidemic, when they were worried about the health of family members, food supply and lost income.
“I think my Christian faith has helped me remain peaceful and hopeful when the virus first broke out because I am confident in God’s timing and I know that this will be over some day,” said Zheng, a Shanghai Christian in her 50s.
The house church cell group she belongs to has been holding conference calls instead of regular gatherings every Sunday since late January.
“My children are living apart and I would get very worried about their health and well-being in this period of time but through prayers and my faith I know they are in God’s hands,” she said.
Xu Yan, a Wuhan Catholic who goes to a state-sanctioned church, said that when anxiety kept her awake at night, she calmed herself by praying and reading the Bible. She also watched live-streamed services of Catholic churches in America.
“The fear of uncertainty and danger is extremely real,” Xu said. “If our life had been normal, I would not have understood the Bible verses about the apocalypse.”