NANYANG, China — The 62-year-old Chinese shopkeeper had waited nearly his entire adult life to see his dream of building a church come true — a brick house with a sunny courtyard and spacious hall with room for 200 believers.
But in March, about a dozen police officers and local officials suddenly showed up at the church on his property and made the frightened congregants disperse. They ordered that the cross, a painting of the Last Supper and Bible verse calligraphy be taken down. And they demanded that all services stop until each person, along with the church itself, was registered with the government, said the shopkeeper, Guo.
Without warning, Guo and his neighbors in China's Christian heartland province of Henan had found themselves on the front lines of an ambitious new effort by the officially atheist ruling Communist Party to dictate — and in some cases displace — the practice of faith in the country.
"I've always prayed for our country's leaders, for our country to get stronger," said Guo, who gave only his last name out of fear of government retribution. "They were never this severe before, not since I started going to church in the 80's. Why are they telling us to stop now?"
Under President Xi Jinping, China's most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, believers are seeing their freedoms shrink dramatically even as the country undergoes a religious revival. Experts and activists say that as he consolidates his power, Xi is waging the most severe systematic suppression of Christianity in the country since religious freedom was written into the Chinese constitution in 1982.
The crackdown on Christianity is part of a broader push by Xi to "Sinicize" all the nation's religions by infusing them with "Chinese characteristics" such as loyalty to the Communist Party. Islamic crescents and domes have been stripped from mosques, and a campaign launched to "re-educate" tens of thousands of Uighur Muslims. Tibetan children have been moved from Buddhist temples to schools and banned from religious activities during their summer holidays, state-run media report.
This spring, a five-year plan to "Sinicize" Christianity in particular was introduced, along with new rules on religious affairs. Over the last several months, local governments across the country have shut down hundreds of private Christian "house churches." A statement last week from 47 in Beijing alone said they had faced "unprecedented" harassment since February.
Authorities have also seized Bibles, while major e-commerce retailers JD.com and Taobao pulled them off their sites. Children and party members are banned from churches in some areas, and at least one township has encouraged Christians to replace posters of Jesus with portraits of Xi. Some Christians have resorted to holding services in secret.
A dozen Chinese Protestants interviewed by the Associated Press described gatherings that were raided, interrogations and surveillance, and one pastor said hundreds of his congregants were questioned individually about their faith. Like Guo, the majority requested that their names be partly or fully withheld because they feared punishment from authorities. After reporters visited Henan in June, some interviewees said they were contacted by police or local officials who urged them not to discuss any new measures around Christianity.
The party has long been wary of Christianity because of its affiliation with Western political values. Several Chinese human rights lawyers jailed for their work, including Jiang Tianyong and Li Heping, are outspoken Christians. So too are many Hong Kong pro-democracy activists, not least among them 2014 protest leader Joshua Wong.
"Chinese leaders have always been suspicious of the political challenge or threat that Christianity poses to the Communist regime," said Xi Lian, a scholar of Christianity in China at Duke University. "Under Xi, this fear of Western infiltration has intensified and gained a prominence that we haven't seen for a long time."
Guo, who keeps a small storefront selling ornate doors in a riverside district, once had eyesight so poor that he could not distinguish the sky from the earth. But after finding God at 27 years old, he made a seemingly miraculous recovery that he attributes to his faith.
For decades, he, like many Christians in China, shuttled from one unregistered house church to another, where folding chairs served as pews and coffee tables as lecterns. Two years ago, he and 10 other Christians pooled their money to erect a permanent church on his property.
They are part of what experts describe as a spiritual awakening in China.
The number of Chinese believers of all faiths has doubled in two decades to an estimated 200 million, by official count, as the hold of the Communist party has weakened. Among them are an estimated 67 million Christians, including Catholics — a number that is expected to swell to become the world's largest Christian population in a matter of decades. This rapid growth has reinvigorated the party's longtime mission to domesticate a religion traditionally aligned with the West.
Historians believe that Christianity was known to China as early as the seventh century, and was later propagated by Jesuit missionaries starting in the 1500s. In recent decades the religion has faced by turns heavy persecution and tacit acceptance.
During the Cultural Revolution, when Mao sought to eradicate all religions, Christians were jailed, tortured and publicly humiliated. But they survived by operating covertly and grew steadily in number after Mao's death in 1976, when a populace disillusioned with the Communist Party began to seek moral guidance elsewhere.
Chinese Christians say the Bible gives them a sense of right versus wrong and the strength to endure in a country where power often trumps justice. While China's rapid growth has brought prosperity to many, others despair at what they see as a deterioration of public morals. The deaths of children in scandals involving tainted infant formula and shoddily-built schools in recent years have led to the sense that modern China was in the midst of an ethical crisis.
"After the 'collapse' of communist ideology, no value system has been in place to fill the spiritual vacuum," said writer Zhang Lijia. "China has witnessed a religious revival in recent decades precisely because of this vacuum and relaxed control."
Officials once largely tolerated the unregistered Protestant house churches that sprang up independent of the official Christian Council, clamping down on some while allowing others to grow. But this year they have taken a tougher approach that relies partly on "thought reform" — a phrase for political indoctrination. Last November, Christian residents of a rural township in southeast Jiangxi province were persuaded to replace posters of the cross and Jesus Christ inside their homes with portraits of Xi, a local official said.
"Through our thought reform, they've voluntarily done it," Qi Yan, a member of the township party committee, told the AP by phone. "The move is aimed at Christian families in poverty, and we educated them to believe in science and not in superstition, making them believe in the party."
The poster campaign appears to symbolize what analysts see as the underlying force driving the change in the party's approach to religion: the ascendance of Xi.
"Xi is a closet Maoist — he is very anxious about thought control," said Willy Lam, a Chinese politics expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "He definitely does not want people to be faithful members of the church, because then people would profess their allegiance to the church rather than to the party, or more exactly, to Xi himself."
Various state and local officials declined repeated requests to comment. But in 2016, Xi explicitly warned against the perceived foreign threats tied to faith, telling a religion conference: "We must resolutely guard against overseas infiltrations via religious means." And in April, the religious affairs department published an article saying that churches must endorse the party's leadership as part of "Sinicization."
"Only Sinicized churches can obtain God's love," the article stated.
The state-backed Chinese Catholic church at recent conferences has also stressed the need to remain independent of the Vatican and to "Sinicize" itself.
Along with "thought reform", the government is cracking down on Christians more aggressively through legal means. In March, a prominent Chinese house church leader with U.S. permanent residency was sentenced to seven years in prison after he built Christian schools in Myanmar. And half a dozen Christians were sentenced last month to up to 13 years in jail for involvement in a "cult," according to U.S.-based Christian non-profit ChinaAid.
The pressure has pushed several dozen pastors and their families to flee to the United States in recent years, ChinaAid says. The wife of one pastor under house arrest left for Midland, Texas about a year ago, after authorities warned that their children might have trouble getting an education in China. She said members of their church in China were barred from being baptized, and even a simple Christmas service was interrupted.
"The government says that we have religious freedom, but really there is no freedom at all," said the pastor's wife, who asked to remain anonymous for her husband's safety. "Many of our Christian brothers and sisters are upset and fearful."
Those who resist pay the price.
After Jin Mingri, a prominent pastor who leads Zion Church in Beijing, refused local authorities' request to install surveillance cameras inside his house church, police individually questioned hundreds of members of the 1,500-person congregation, he said. The congregants faced veiled threats, Jin said, and many were asked to sign a pledge promising to leave Zion, which the government agents called illegal, politically incorrect and a cult. Some people lost their jobs or were evicted from rented apartments because police intimidated their bosses and landlords.
For 11 years, the church has been housed on one floor of an office building, but the property management informed Jin in May that they would have to move out at the end of the summer. Jin said the management admitted to being influenced by external "pressures."
"A lot of our flock are terrified by the pressure that the government is putting on them," he said. "It's painful to think that in our own country's capital, we must pay so dearly just to practice our faith."
At the epicenter of the drive to control the Christian community in China is Henan, the cradle of Chinese civilization and the entry point for many of the earliest foreign missionaries. Today, the province is one of the most populous in the country and a key part of Xi's fight against poverty, as proclaimed by red banners across acres of peanut farms and oil fields.
Around the time authorities ordered Guo's church to stop congregating in March, his district announced a crackdown on private Christian meeting spots. On a single Sunday morning, the announcement said, 700 religious banners were removed, 200 religious texts seized and 31 illegal Christian gathering places shut down. Officials went door-to-door stripping decorative scrolls bearing the cross from home entrances.
In Zhengzhou, Henan's capital, all that is left of one house church is shattered glass, tangled wires and torn hymnbooks, strewn among the rubble of a knocked-down wall. Pegged to another wall is a single wooden cross, still intact.
The church inside a commercial building had served about 100 believers for years. But in late January, nearly 60 officials from the local religion department and police station appeared without warning. Armed with electric saws, they demolished the church, confiscated Bibles and computers and held a handful of young worshippers — including a 14-year-old girl — at a police station for more than 10 hours, according to a church leader.
The authorities called the church illegal. The church leader said they had brought documentation to the religion department three or four times in an attempt to formally register it, but never received a response. Now, they have ceased to congregate.
The church leader prays that the government will change its mind.
"We support President Xi," he said. "All we ask for is a space for our faith."
That space for Xu Shijuan, a 63-year-old Seventh-Day Adventist, was her living room, where she held house church gatherings for four years. She stopped in March, after a group of men led by a local official ordered her to disband the meeting of about two dozen elderly Christians.
"If you don't heed our orders, the next group to come will be law enforcement," he said, according to Xu. "They will use force to disband you."
Xu readily complied. "The people have dispersed, but our faith has not," she told the AP at her home in Zhengzhou. "God's path cannot be blocked. The more you try to control it, the more it will grow."
Even Protestant churches already registered with the state have not been spared greater restrictions. When reporters visited five such churches in Henan this June, all bore notices at their entrances stating that minors and party members were not allowed inside. A banner above one church door exhorted members to "implement the basic direction of the party's religious work." Another church erected a Chinese flag at the foot of its steps.
Some congregations now sing the national anthem during services, according to a house church pastor named Liu. Another pastor said his government-approved church shut down its Sunday school and cancelled all activities for children after receiving orders in February.
Across Henan, house churches that once hosted gatherings of hundreds have now sealed their doors and split into groups of no more than a handful. Services are announced last-minute and held in different locations each week, often under the cloak of darkness.
For a time, Guo's church did the same. They avoided congregating on Sundays to escape authorities' notice.
But the church members were scared, and the group dwindled to 30. Authorities appealed to Guo to help gather information on his fellow Christians. He was given a form, reviewed by the AP, which asked for churchgoers' names, educational background and addresses, as well as the length of time they had been faithful and whether they were baptized.
The brick house was largely deserted this summer. Around the door frame, tattered red outlines remained of a scroll that once read "God's love is as deep as the sea."
Inside, Guo has refused to remove the cross and other decorations, telling authorities they are within his private property.
Among them, pinned to a wall in the nave, is a bright blue poster that quotes China's constitutional promise of religious freedom.