China is forcing Christians to replace posters of Jesus Christ with Communist leaders - and threatening to cancel the poverty alleviation benefits of those who refuse to comply.
Religious liberty magazine Bitter Winter reports that Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authorities are going from town to town, demanding that Christian icons be replaced with pictures of Chairman Mao Zedong and President Xi Jinping.
Eighty-year-old Fei Zhongju from Xiayi county revealed what authorities told him after barging into his home in October 2018: "If we come back for inspection and find that you haven't put up Chairman Mao's portrait, we'll cancel your poverty alleviation benefits."
Fei's wife revealed that her husband fell from the table and seriously injured himself as he attempted to get up and comply with the orders.
"What have we believers in the Lord done wrong," the woman said. "The government is forcing us to tear up portraits of the Lord Jesus, and as a result, my husband was injured."
Since early February 2018, nearly 1,400 Christian items have been destroyed all across the townships of Xiayi county, according to the outlet. Some counties have been left entirely without any religious symbols.
Reports of the CCP forcing Christians to replace religious images with pictures of Communist leaders first emerged in 2017, with authorities targeting poor, rural communities.
The South China Morning Post reported that thousands of Christian residents in the rural areas of southeast China swapped images of Jesus with Xi on the walls of their houses after authorities threatened to remove the government's poverty-relief measures.
The government's program was initiated to "transform believers in religion into believers in the party," a local report said.
"Many poor households have plunged into poverty because of illness in the family. Some resorted to believing in Jesus to cure their illnesses," Qi Yan, chairman of the Congress in Huangjinbu - one of the townships in the county, was quoted as saying. "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."
Meanwhile, Christians in the central Henan Province have also complained that the government is forcefully turning churches into theaters, game rooms, and other types of entertainment venues.
Bitter Winter posted several photos and clips showing how pulpits across the country once meant to preach the Gospel have since been covered with CCP propaganda or turned into activity or entertainment centers.
In light of these abuses, persecution watchdog group Open Doors USA ranked China number 27 on its World Watch List of countries where Christians face the most severe persecution for their faith, marking a 16-spot jump from its previous ranking. Open Doors notes that within the last year, the country "saw increases in stricter state control of religious rights."