China’s new ‘Smart Religion’ app requires faithful to register to attend worship services
A house church in Beijing, China. / Credit: Huang Jinhui/Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 4.0
By Jonah McKeown
St. Louis, Mo., Mar 7, 2023 / 15:15 pm (CNA).
A human rights group active in China is reporting that religious believers in a populous Chinese province are now required to register on a government app in order to attend worship services.
ChinaAid, a U.S.-based Christian charity, reported March 6 that the religious department of the provincial government of Henan is rolling out a system whereby all believers must make online reservations before they can attend services in churches, mosques, or Buddhist temples.
The reservations are to be made through an app called “Smart Religion” developed by the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Commission of Henan Province. According to ChinaAid, applicants must fill in personal information, including their name, phone number, government ID number, permanent residence, occupation, and date of birth before they can make a reservation. Those who are allowed into a place of worship must also have their temperature taken — suggesting the app may be related in some way to COVID-19 restrictions — and show a reservation code.
Henan, located in the east-central part of the country, has one of the largest Christian populations in China — as much as 6% — according to a 2012 government survey. The communist government of China is officially secular, and the same survey suggested that just 13% of the 98 million population of Henan belongs to an organized religion.
The Chinese government technically recognizes Catholicism as one of five religions in the country, but there exists an underground Catholic Church, which is persecuted and loyal to Rome. Government-approved Catholic churches, on the other hand, have comparatively more freedom of worship but face other challenges, including pressure from the government to censor parts of Catholic teaching, while including Chinese nationalism and love for the party in preaching. Religious believers of all stripes are surveilled in China.
ChinaAid reported that there are concerns that less tech-savvy elderly people might be isolated from signing up for religious services, but officials said staff would assist them in doing so.
ChinaAid said the development and rollout of the app is part of the communist government’s efforts to “strictly manage religion in a comprehensive way,” in part by gathering data about religious believers. The group also expressed concern that the introduction of this additional barrier will turn people away from the practice of religion.
“These management measures did not stem from the intention to protect the religious rights of religious people but rather are mediums to accomplish political purposes,” the group wrote.
“China’s Henan Daily reported that on Feb. 24 this year, Zhang Leiming, member of the Standing Committee of the Henan Provincial Party Committee and head of the United Front Work Department, went to the Provincial Ethnic and Religious Committee to investigate and pointed out that it is necessary to strictly manage religion in a comprehensive way, unite and guide the majority of religious believers to follow the Chinese Communist Party unswervingly.”
Henan was the site of the razing of a Catholic Church in 2017 by government authorities, who also detained dozens of people. The government had reportedly deemed the church an “illegal structure” and ordered it removed. Church property, as well as that of parishioners and construction workers, was confiscated. The Chinese Communist Party also claimed that the church had failed to pay a “road usage fee” that villagers wanted imposed.
In April 2016 Li Jiangong, a pastor in Zhumadian, another city of Henan province, lost his wife when the couple tried to save their house church from being bulldozed in a government-ordered destruction of the church. He “barely escaped” death, according to the most recent annual report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.