BEIJING - The recent closure of one of Beijing's largest independent churches, and a crackdown on congregations elsewhere in China, are part of a broader effort to bring religion more fully under the ruling Communist Party's control, say Christian leaders, scholars and rights advocates.
In recent weeks, authorities have used raids, religious censuses and even confessional statements to carry out that effort, according to accounts from Christian members, rights groups and postings online.
Authorities have characterized the efforts as moves aimed at protecting the public and using socialist values to guide religion and help believers unite around the country's leadership. Earlier this year, stricter amendments were added to the Religious Affairs Regulation, a guideline whose stated aim is to protect religious freedoms. Those amendments, observers say, have helped pave the way for the crackdown on unregulated churches and general tightening on religion.
"Nationwide, regardless of whether it is the officially recognized patriotic church, house churches or underground congregations, all are facing new circumstances," said Tang Jitian, a rights lawyer in Beijing. "All of these moves highlight the regime's concerns about religion."
Earlier this month in central Henan province, authorities raided four churches, forcibly removed crosses and burned seized bibles. More recently, in Sichuan, authorities broke up a service of the Chengdu Early Rain Covenant Church, detaining its two pastors. One of the pastors remains in custody, according to the group Chinese Human Rights Defenders.
That move came just days after authorities shut down Beijing Zion Church, an independent congregation in the capital with about 1,500 members.
FILE - Government seals are seen on a rear entrance of the Zion church after it was shut down by authorities in Beijing, China, Sept. 11, 2018.
The pastor, Jin Mingri, told VOA that the effort to shut down Beijing Zion Church began earlier this year when authorities ordered the congregation to install 24 surveillance cameras for "fire safety" reasons. Members refused to comply, citing concerns about personal privacy and the impact it would have on the church's atmosphere, he said in an interview with VOA's Mandarin Service.
"Since April, they started to forcefully suppress our congregation, mobilizing some 10,000, using the combined force of police and government, interviewing our members and telling them Beijing Zion Church is an evil cult, that we're politically incorrect and an illegal organization," he said.
China's Communist Party, which is said to have some 90 million members, is officially atheist; but, increasingly, especially in recent years, the number of religious believers in its ranks has grown.
In late August, the party released new internal disciplinary measures that call for the strict handling of religious activities that undermine national unity.
According to the regulations, party committees in government departments or major enterprises were also ordered to "strengthen the ideological education of religious members."
Outside the party, the number of religious followers has been growing too, even faster than authorities can control.
And the leadership's response to this has been clear since a major political party Congress was held last year. During that meeting, President Xi Jinping reasserted the party's dominance over facets of society.
More importantly, religious leaders and scholars note, was the shift in March to put the State Administration for Religious Affairs - a government office - back under the control of the Communist Party's United Front Work Department.
FILE - Believers gather at a government-sanctioned Catholic church before mass in Youtong, Hebei province, China, March 25, 2018.
That move, Jin said, has once again turned religion into an ideological competition, pitting believers against the party. Unlike the religious affairs department, the United Front Work Department is much deeper into society, down into the local town and village level, and that will help the Communist Party exert more pressure over religions.
"When the party is in charge of religious affairs, it can use all types of means to exert control, and its power to suppress is unprecedented," Jin said.
Jin said this type of expansive control over religion will become a hallmark of Xi's leadership.
"All religions, not only Christians but Buddhists, Catholics and Muslims, will all have to deal with the special challenges of this new era," he said.
In addition to the raid of churches and crackdowns already under way, pressure is being brought to bear within the party and outside through the use of pledge statements.
Online, many Christians have posted pledge letters that show how the party is trying to get believers to renounce their faith. Analysts say the pledge letters appear to be aimed at a wide range of targets, from party members to college teachers and students.
"We're also seeing a mass scale campaign against party members who have religious beliefs," said Ying Fuk-tsang, director of the divinity school at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
One signed pledge, posted online, read: "After studying the Religious Affairs Regulation and thinking it over, I promise I will no longer believe in Christianity and that I will resolutely listen to and follow the party."
In Wenzhou City, authorities included a question about parents' religious beliefs as part of a standard school contact information form. The form has raised concerns among believers, who have urged members to go ahead and declare their faith, come what may.
Neither authorities at the religious affairs bureau in Wenzhou nor the United Front Work Department could be reached for comment about the forms, raids or crackdown.
Joyce Huang and John Ai contributed to this report.