As China becomes more politically conservative, some churches are facing greater pressure to fall in line with the Communist party, a country expert has confirmed.
Speaking anonymously, a spokesperson for Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) told Christian Today that there has been a "knock on effect" for Christians following the introduction of a hard-line approach to various parts of civil society by President Xi Jinping.
It's having particular repercussions for party members, of which there are at least 80 million. "The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is the largest political party in the world, and being part of it doesn't necessarily mean you're an official. Lots of young people see it as a way to get further educational and employment opportunities; it's a networking tool," the spokesperson explained.
"But since the CCP is officially atheist, you cannot be a Christian, at least publicly, if you are a member."
Christian pastors in China have spoken of young people from their congregation struggling to know how to reconcile their beliefs with party membership. "It's a question young people are asking as they seek to further their careers," she explained.
"Churches in Beijing and Shanghai in particular are mostly drawn from the middle classes; white collar workers and well-educated young people from relatively comfortable families, and so for them, applying for party membership would be a part of meeting their career goals. But it presents a problem for them; should they officially enounce their religion but practise it discreetly, or leave the Church completely, or not apply to join the party at all?"
Last week, a senior official within the CCP, Zhu Weiqun, dismissed allegations that widespread corruption in the party is due to a lack of religious belief.
In a piece for the Global Times, he said that a ban on religion is "the important ideological and organisational principle which has been upheld since the founding of the party. There is no doubt about it."
As chairman of the ethnic and religious affairs committee of the Chinese Peoples' Political Consultative Conference, Zhu argued that the "high level of consistency" on this matter helps the CCP to remain unified.
"Without the foundation of the worldview, the mansion of the party's ideologies, theories and organisations will all collapse. We could no longer be called the 'Chinese Communist Party'," he said.
"If the stronger the religion is, the higher a society's moral level is, then Middle Ages Europe under the influence of the Vatican should have been the golden age of human morality, and there would have been no need for the Renaissance," he added.
However, there have been several reports of people within the CCP who have converted to Christianity, but are discreet about their beliefs.
"They may attend church, but they do not make it public while they are in an official role, for example. When they step down from that position or retire, they may come out and be more open about their faith," CSW's spokesperson said.
"But the official line is that they are not allowed to belong to any religion, whether that's a pre-existing belief before they became a member, or whether they convert later on."
A recent crackdown on churches in Zhejiang province, particularly in the city of Wenzhou, has led many to believe that the Government is specifically targeting Christians as part of its bid to retain complete control. Estimates vary, but over 300 churches are thought to have been demolished.
CSW's researcher said the demolitions "came out of the blue" to local pastors in the region. "Wenzhou is known as China's Jerusalem, and churches in Zhejiang have been able to become wealthy and influential and have been largely left alone by the government, so it was a surprise to people when the authorities started to remove the crosses and demolish churches," she said.
Although the right to freedom of religious belief is guaranteed under Article 36 of the Chinese Constitution, that protection is limited to those who worship within state-sanctioned religious bodies. Those who choose to practise their faith outside of these, or whose beliefs are not officially recognised by the Government, are at risk of being accused of participating in illegal activities, which carries heavy punishment.
However, the first churches to be targeted by the CCP in the latest wave of attacks belonged to the state-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement.
"It's hard not to see it as an attempt to bring the registered Church into line with party policies. There's a feeling that they were perhaps becoming too independent, and so are being brought in," the China expert said, adding that additional pressure is being placed on some unregistered churches to come under the Three-Self umbrella.
She attributed the authorities' actions in Zhejiang, to a change in the political climate since Xi Jinping came to power.
"When I asked religious leaders in China about the reason for the events in Zhejiang, I got many different answers. It's fair to say there could be many different reasons for what's happening in Wenzhou, but what came out for me was that most people felt it's a sign of the general environment becoming more politically conservative, not specifically towards religion, but it is having a knock on effect for some religious groups," she explained.
Since Xi Jinping came to power in November 2012, she said, "we've seen a change as a result of him being a 'strongman' leader...even with the anti-corruption drive, people who spoke out against corruption and were part of social movements to tackle it have been detained, sentenced and imprisoned. The Party wants to tackle corruption but doens't seem to want any help from activists."
While it remains unclear as to who has commanded churches to have their crosses removed and demolished, many Christians trace it back to comments made by the provincial party secretary in Zhejiang, who said the crosses were too shiny and too visible on the skyline during a recent visit.
"It could also be provincial authorities trying to show that they will take the same hard-line on religion, as part of the strong line approach," she said.
It is not yet known what will happen in the future, but it seems likely that both registered and independent churches in China will come under increasing pressure.
"There's been talk about having to making sure that churches in China follow a Chinese Christian theology, and at the same time Xi Jinping has talked more than pervious leaders about returning to traditional beliefs," she said.
"All of this has left some Christians to fear a change in the political climate for churches in China."