Photo: Authorities harass Henan Christians during a Sunday service in 2018 (ChinaAid)
(China—March 6, 2023) Christians in Henan province, China, must complete an online form and receive approval to attend church services. Officials refer to applications for church gatherings as a form of governance for “Smart Religion,” but no legal basis has been provided for such a measure.
Henan has one of the largest Christian populations in China. According to the “Smart Religion” requirements formulated by Henan’s provincial religious department, if religious believers want to participate in religious activities, they must make online reservations before they can attend services in churches, mosques, or Buddhist temples.
Local believers must register and make an appointment through an application called “Smart Religion,” developed by the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Commission of Henan Province.
How the form works
According to the application’s requirements, religious people must select the religious venue they want to attend before booking. Still, the use of religious identification keywords such as “mosque,” “temple,” “Christianity,” and “Catholicism” is not allowed.
Applicants must fill in personal information, including name, phone number, ID number, permanent residence, occupation, and date of birth, before they can make a reservation. Those who are allowed into the church must also have their temperature taken and show a reservation code.
Elderly believers isolated
When it comes to questions about how elderly believers or older adults who may not know how to operate mobile phone applications make reservations, officials said that staff would assist them in doing so.
Reflections from the Christians indicated that the cumbersome application procedures have reduced the number of believers attending churches.
Implementation of the form
This so-called “Smart Religion” online application has been officially launched in some parts of Henan. In August 2022, the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau of Puyang County in Henan and the Henan Billion Second Electronic Technology Co., Ltd. signed a project contract for the “Construction of an Independent Command Platform for the Management of Smart Religion.”
According to the official website of the Ministry of Ethnic and Religious Affairs of China, as early as July 2020, at the symposium on the construction of a religious big data management platform held in Henan, several platform projects, such as the construction of “Smart Religion,” were inspected. The digital platform is the foundation of the religious affairs management improvement project, and the China Construction Bank of the Henan Branch provided technical support.
Monitoring from big data
The big data platform “Smart Religion” of the State Administration of Religious Affairs also introduced big religious data and artificial intelligence. The overview of this product utilizes technologies such as big data, artificial intelligence, electronic maps, mobile web, and 720-degree VR panoramic map. Through precise positioning and video surveillance of the venues used for religious purposes in Chang’an district, and through religious multidimensional data analysis to improve religious affairs management.
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. China’s Henan Daily reported that on February 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.
~Gao Zhensai, Special Correspondent of ChinaAid