The Chinese government is pressuring religious believers to remove images and messages related to their faith and replace those images with pictures of President Xi Jinping.
Communist Party officials have told thousands of Chinese Christians that Xi is able to provide for their health and wellbeing but Jesus is not, the Washington Post reports. A local report on social media claimed officials in Yugan county’s Huangjinbu township visited poor Christian households to help them embrace the party’s solutions to their material want.
Officials "melted the hard ice in their hearts" and "transformed them from believing in religion to believing in the party," the report said.
Villagers removed 624 religious texts and images in their homes "voluntarily" as a result, and most of them were replaced with a picture of Xi.
Qi Yan, who is in charge of a local "poverty alleviation" effort, said party members were helping Christians in Yugan county stop "resorting" to Jesus.
"Many poor households have plunged into poverty because of illness in the family. Some resorted to believing in Jesus to cure their illnesses," Qi said. "But we tried to tell them that getting ill is a physical thing and that the people who can really help them are the Communist Party and General Secretary Xi."
Qi boasted that the party has distributed more than 1000 images of Xi to the people of Huangjinbu, all of which were hung in their homes. He said their efforts would help cure the people’s ignorance.
"Many rural people are ignorant. They think God is their savior," he said. "After our cadres’ work, they’ll realize their mistakes and think: We should no longer rely on Jesus, but on the party for help."
The push by the Communist Party harkens back to the leadership of the People's Republic of China's founder, Mao Zedong, whose portrait was kept in every home.
The South China Morning Post quoted a Yugan resident named Liu, who said poverty relief programs required recipients to remove religious images.
"Some families put up gospel couplets on their front doors during the Lunar New Year, some also hang paintings of the cross. But they’ve all been torn down," Liu said.
"They all have their belief and, of course, they didn’t want to take them down. But there is no way out. If they don’t agree to do so, they won’t be given their quota from the poverty-relief fund," he added.
The latest push to replace religion with the Communist Party comes after Yugan officials held a meeting about the "crisis" of religious belief in the county in October, a topic they wrote about on their official website.
The religion suppression efforts have been criticized by some voices in China, and not without penalty. Jailed dissident Gao Zhisheng released a report in October where he argued Xi was intensifying religious persecution in China. The Christian lawyer said events in 2016 characterized an ongoing effort by the government to suppress religious belief.
"Since Xi Jinping came to power, the [Chinese Communist Party’s] general suppression of Christianity, with a particular focus on individual cases, has become a new and distinctive trend, which has been even more obvious in the past year," Gao wrote.
Gao also wrote about forced removal of crosses and other religious symbols and texts, which he said has even led to some dissenting believers being killed. Chinese law claims to allow religious freedom, but it is tightly controlled by the government.
The Communist Party of China amended its constitution in October to elevate Xi to a similar level as Mao. Xi is expected to use his new status to consolidate his power.