For years, the American right has been decrying the “War on Christmas.” Santa has replaced Jesus, many complain; nativities are an increasingly rare sight; public schools close for “winter break” now; and “Merry Christmas” is replaced with “Happy Holidays.” In response, American Christians respond with aphorisms, imploring the public to “keep ‘Christ’ in Christmas” and “remember the Reason for the season.”
But across the Pacific Ocean, other Christians are experiencing a genuine War on Christmas, courtesy of their government. The Christmas season marks a particularly acute time of persecution for the Chinese church.
This year’s first high-profile instance of Christmas persecution occurred last week in Shenzhen, as Christians gathered in a park to hold a service discussing the meaning of Christmas.
That explanation is much-needed; Chinese businesses have adopted the concept of Christmas as a way to encourage consumers to splurge, but something is lost in translation. Santa posters, ornaments and Christmas trees make baffling appearances in the most unexpected of places and the most unseasonal of times. There, Christmas decorations are more likely a testament to the country’s rampant materialism than to any sort of spiritual yearning.
Texas-based ChinaAid, which monitors religious freedom, reported that Pastor Cao Nan simply “wanted to tell others about the Lord’s saving grace and the good news about the Kingdom of Heaven, even at the cost of being hated by others and suffering persecution.”
The government decided Cao couldn’t do that. Nearly 40 police officers suddenly appeared at the gathering, ChinaAid reports. Between eight and 16 Christians were detained, including a 70-year-old woman.
Pastor Cao was held longest. He told Radio Free Asia that he “was the main person who was injured. I have an injury to my face, and bruises on my legs… and neck. … When they were interrogating me, they said I was being held on suspicion of impersonating a religious official and disturbing public order.”
“He willingly accepted this unjust punishment for the sake of the Lord’s truth and God the Father’s mission of saving lost souls,” ChinaAid said.
Finally released with a verbal warning, Cao got off relatively easy. Last Christmas, police in Sichuan Province raided another outdoor service, firing tear gas, detaining some worshipers, and confiscating the church’s musical equipment. One church member told Radio Free Asia that “my eyes were so swollen I couldn’t see at all” after the police fired off tear gas into the crowd.
And in Zhejiang Province last year, police performed another raid on house church members who had gathered to plan a Christmas event. The authorities particularly fixated on the church leaders. Around six officers began beating the pastor, and when his son tried to stop them, they turned on him. The pastor, his son, and his wife were all detained, according to ChinaAid.
Faced with the government’s violent hostility, Chinese Christians struggle to come up with an appropriate response. ChinaAid’s statement on the Shenzhen raid summarizes neatly summarizes their predicament, stating that it “would like to take this opportunity to remind all Christians in mainland China that, with the approach of Christmas, the government’s persecution of Christians will escalate. Therefore, believers need to respond with finesse while continuing to serve faithfully. In the face of persecution, do not be afraid and do not retreat, so as to win the victory in this spiritual battle.”
In reality, Beijing’s persecution of Christians is entirely counterproductive. Most Chinese Christians simply want to worship in peace, commemorating one of the most significant days on their religious calendar. And most don’t consider their faith particularly political.
Yet Beijing fears the acknowledgement of a higher power as much as it fears free speech or free assembly. So it responds in a way that politicizes Christianity and Christmas—but it does so at its own risk.
Jillian Kay Melchior has traveled extensively in China, reporting on Christianity as a Robert Novak fellow with the Phillips Foundation. Via ChinaAid: Image of Chinese Christian Luo Sennian after being beaten by police in Zhejiang Province.