China warns its Catholics to resist ‘foreign infiltration’ as faith app shuts down

State-backed Catholic church elders have been warned that their faith needs to "better adapt itself to a socialist society"

China’s top political adviser has warned the country’s Catholics of the dangers of “foreign infiltration,” as a helper app for Catholics said it was shutting down indefinitely.

Wang Yang, who is a member of the all-powerful Politburo standing committee and heads the parliamentary advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), told a meeting of state-backed Catholic church elders that their faith needs to “better adapt itself to a socialist society.”

“Wang urged them to unswervingly adhere to the principle of independence [from the Vatican], resist infiltration by foreign forces and resolutely safeguard China’s sovereignty, security and development interests,” state news agency Xinhua reported.

“He also called for efforts to ensure that the leadership of the Catholic Church remains firmly in the hands of those who love their country and religion,” the Aug. 23 report said.

His comments came as the Catholic app CathAssist announced it was stopping operations.

“Since the implementation of [new rules] on March 1, we have made various efforts to apply for an Internet Religious Information Service License,” it said.

“We have take various actions including suspending sharing, changing our name, adjusting content … but getting a license requires a much larger reduction in functionality and content,” the app’s development team said in an Aug. 23 statement on its website.

“After careful consideration, the CathAssist website and app have decided to suspend operations indefinitely,” it said.

A Catholic from the northern Chinese province of Hebei, who declined to be named, said he had installed the app a long time ago, but that it stopped working two days earlier.

“[They] worked hard for several months [to get the license], but in the end they failed, so it has been shut down,” the man said.

He said he felt lost without the app.

“I used CathAssist to listen to the priest explaining the Bible every day, as well as a lot of other Catholic spiritual content,” he said. “I felt I was missing out on a lot when I found out it was no longer available.”

Protestant pastor Liu Yi, who now lives in the California Bay Area, said the app would never have been granted the license anyway.

“As far as I know, the organization behind the app was a regular company, which would have made it almost impossible to get a license,” Liu said.

“Some people have told me that they require a huge amount of political censorship to get one, and if the applicant fails the political tests, the license won’t be issued,” he said. “The purpose of the license is to prevent individuals or other organizations to offer religious teachings online.”

Catholics attend Mass at the state-sanctioned St. Ignatius Catholic Cathedral in Shanghai on Sept. 30, 2018. (Photo by Johannes Eisele/AFP)

Form of retaliation

Taiwan strategic analyst Shih Chien-yu said the current crackdown was at least in part a form of retaliation by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for the Catholic Church’s support of the 2019 protest movement in Hong Kong.

“Beijing was very unhappy about that, and the bishop of Hong Kong was dismissed and a pro-China priest appointed in his place,” Shih said.

He said Chinese Catholics are also being forced to accept rituals that have been heavily revised by the CCP, citing the recent appearance of statues of the Virgin Mary dressed to look like Empress Dowager Cixi.

Chang Chiah-lin, a professor at Taiwan’s Tamkang University, said Wang is continuing the “sinicization of religion” policy brought in by CCP leader Xi Jinping.

“Catholic leaders in China are required to be patriotic and love the party,” Chang told RFA. “They need to be ideologically very strong, to ensure the CCP can control the whole of the Chinese Catholic church through its leaders.”

“It would actually be very difficult to infiltrate the Catholic Church in China,” he said.

Bob Fu, founder and president of the U.S.-based Christian rights group ChinaAid, said the CCP under Xi is seeking to subsume all forms of religious expression under the ideology of the CCP.

“There are couplets on the door [of churches] telling them to obey the party and follow the party, rather than God, or even the Pope,” Fu said. “Inside, there is also a portrait of Xi Jinping.”

“The Vatican struck a secret deal with China, thinking they were helping the church, but they were actually harming it,” he said. “Disappearances and kidnappings of clergy are still happening, and it’s getting worse.”

“The Sino-Vatican agreement has politicized the Church, and … it was a betrayal of the Church,” he said. “The Pope is being held hostage by politicians in religious robes.”

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