Bibles have reportedly been pulled from sale through online bookstores across China, sparking confusion and outrage from frustrated Chinese-Christians on social media amid a tenuous split between the Vatican and Beijing.
- It is widely reported the Bibles were removed from online bookshops on March 30
- Preparation for the reinterpretation and retranslation of the Bible is underway
- China hopes to improve relations with the Vatican, jointly promote constructive dialogue
Yesterday Chinese officials announced Beijing "has always made real efforts towards" establishing Vatican relations during a press conference to release a white paper which coincidentally outlined how religious beliefs and freedoms are protected under the country's socialist systems.
The white paper — titled China's Policies and Practices on Protecting Freedom of Religious Belief — said Chinese religious communities "should adhere to the direction of localising the religion, practice the core values of socialism, develop and expand the fine Chinese tradition and actively explore the religious thought which accords with China's national circumstances".
But at nearly the same time the paper was released, Chinese social media users began noticing that Bibles were disappearing online.
Searches for the Bibles on China's largest e-commerce platforms including Taobao, Jingdong and Amazon as well as DangDang.com — which claims to be the world's biggest Chinese online bookstore — started turning up "no results" responses.
Some websites still showed listings for "Holy Bible", but buyers did not have the option to add the item to their cart. Some Christianity-related books have also been blocked on Taobao.
Late last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping — who recently abolished term limits for the Chinese presidency — made it clear there would be a crackdown on foreign religions this year.
Mr Xi had said religions could operate only if they were "Chinese in orientation" and that Beijing "must provide active guidance to religions so that they can adapt themselves to socialist society" — which experts saw as an part of an ongoing crackdown by the ruling party.
Yesterday's white paper said China's main religions were Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Christianity. It added that of its nearly 200 million religious citizens, Christians accounted for more than 38 million, while Catholics made up about 6 million.
But non-government estimates have suggested that China actually has closer to 100 million Christians, making it one of the biggest Christian countries in the world. However only the worshippers of the Government's state-sponsored Patriotic Church are officially recognised.
The Bible to be 'reinterpreted and retranslated'
In the past 24 hours, many netizens and observers have scrambled to speculate on why the Bible may have been pulled from online bookshelves — the most common interpretation being that it would be replaced with a state-revised edition.
One Weibo user pointed out, to the agreement of many others, the Bible itself has no official issuance number and is not officially approved by the Chinese Government for publication.
"Theoretically speaking, the Bible is an illegal publication that cannot be sold and can only be circulated in churches," they said.
According to an official document released by China's State Administration for Religious Affairs, one of the biggest tasks in the coming years is to enhance "Chinese-style Christianity and theology" by reinterpreting and retranslating the Bible.
The document, titled Principle for Promoting the Chinese Christianity in China for the Next Five Years (2018-2022), was formally launched in Nanjing in eastern China on March 28. Some social media users said Bibles started coming down from the websites on March 30.
The date coincides with a massive spike in the keyword search "Bible" on Chinese social media platform Weibo the day before, followed by a sharp nose dive to zero on April 1, when the word may have been censored.
Nanjing is also home to the world's largest Bible-printing factory and the first Bible-printing factory in China — the company has printed 155 million copies of the Bible in 90 more languages distributed to more than 70 countries around the world.
The document also states that one of the main tasks for the next five years will be to build up the Chinese Christianity and the Chinese theology, in order to "consciously develop Bible study talents to lay a solid foundation for reinterpreting and retranslating the Bible or writing the reference books".
Calls for Government to reverse 'ban' on Bibles
Warren Wang, 30, a Christian who migrated to Sydney from Shanghai in eastern China in 2012, told the ABC many Chinese Christians saw this coming.
Mr Wang said he was interested in Christianity when he was still living in China, and used to go to government-backed churches in Shanghai.
"I'm not that surprised that they're taking the Bible off the shelves now," Mr Wang said.
"This is a lot like something China would do — the Communist Party teaches atheism and since Xi Jinping is becoming increasingly powerful — this is expected.
Meanwhile, William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International, said the Chinese Government should immediately reverse its ban on the sale of Bibles, and ensure all Christians and people of other regions could exercise their faith without government interference or intimidation.
"The Chinese Government under President Xi Jinping has taken a much harder approach towards Christianity while reinforcing atheism among Communist Party cadres," he said.
"Most likely this ban on the Bible is an attempt to limit the spread of what the Government fears is an alternative belief system."
Other recent signs of a crackdown on the Christian community in China include numerous reports of house churches being banned in Henan in central China and elsewhere, with more than 1,000 crosses and crucifixes being taken down in the Zhejiang province, Mr Nee added.
"Despite all the pressure put on Christians, and indeed, perhaps because of it, China is seeing a surge of religious belief," he said.
"The situation for freedom of religion varies greatly form location to location, with some people going to church and holding Bible studies and other activities with little interference, while in other areas the Government is much more hard line".