WASHINGTON - China appears to be strengthening its censorship controls over Christian religious publications that are approved for distribution by the state.
While the Chinese Communist Party outlaws many religious texts and other books considered subversive, it does allow some Christian groups to distribute religious literature that meets the requirements of the country's censors.
However just recently, according to China Aid, a Christian NGO focused on raising awareness of religious freedom in China, censors have begun removing the words "Christ" and "Jesus" from some publications, including on Chinese social media networks, replacing them with the letters "JD" and "YS." Other scholars say Christians themselves may be replacing the words in the text on their own, trying to avoid online censors that may be blocking the words from reaching online readers.
The Chinese authorities' controls over Christians go beyond censoring religious publications. In recent years, there have been an increasing number of churches and large crosses that have been demolished by the state for alleged regulatory violations.
Xu Yonghai, a pastor at a family church in Beijing, told VOA that since 2014, the Chinese Communist Party has been targeting government-approved churches.
"During former President Jiang Zemin's term, all the official churches are the Party's assistants and had never been under pressure. But since 2014, the government starts to restrict both underground churches and official churches," he said, adding that this shows China is tightening religious control and pushing communism.
Meanwhile, as the Vatican continues its engagement with the Chinese Communist Party, there are some Catholics who say the Church's willingness to work with the authorities has not improved their own religious freedom, especially for believers who attend underground churches.
This month the Vatican confirmed that the Holy See had approved an agreement with China on a process, which remains secret, for approving bishops in the country. The Vatican has defended the measure as necessary to growing the church there.
But in China, there are Catholics who object.
Mr. Zhang, a Catholic in China's southwest Yunan Province, told VOA it is a betrayal on the part of the pope and that he believes it is a sin to negotiate and compromise on holy matters such as the appointment of bishops with the Chinese Communist Party.
Pastor Xu said he understands the dilemma the Vatican faces.
"I think they are well-intended because engagement means that more Chinese people will know about Christ," he said. "Yet the situation in China is just so special."
Mr. Wang, a Catholic from China's central Sha'anxi Province, said the pope's action is "a betrayal to God."
Hajj travel restrictions
China has been roundly condemned for its repressive crackdown on Muslims in Xinjiang province, where at least 1 million Uighurs are being held in government detention camps. But the crackdown on Muslims goes beyond Xinjiang.
This month, Beijing announced stricter rules for all Muslims in China who wish to visit Saudi Arabia for the hajj pilgrimage. The National Religious Affairs Administration issued a new set of rules last Monday, stating that all trips to Saudi Arabia must be arranged by the Islamic Association of China, an organization controlled by the communist party's international outreach arm, the United Front Work Department.
Independent personal pilgrimages are not allowed.
The rules state "the association should educate hajj attendees on patriotic and safe behavior, strengthen the management of attendees, and prevent the infiltration of religious extremist thinking and behavior that endangers national security."
Meanwhile, some traditional temples are also being swept away by the CCP's promotion of atheism.
The Italy-based publication Bitter Winter, an online magazine that focuses on religious freedom and human rights in China, reported that in China's Linzhou City in its central Henan Province, more than 90 folk temples were demolished and more than 100 temples rebuilt in a month.
These temples of folk beliefs have been changed into elderly activity centers, farmers night schools, and volunteer service centers, etc.
The city's actions to rectify places of folk beliefs are considered a sign of local government's political achievements.
Netizens mocked that Chinese people are now living in the "Red Dynasty." The prerequisite for all religious beliefs is to believe in the Red Religion first. "Regardless of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, or Taoism, they are all a "red family," one netizen said.