An international human rights organization has reported a “sudden and significant increase in online hostility” toward Christians in China’s Hebei province.
The phenomenon came after several social media posts alleged that a coronavirus outbreak in the area in January originated in a church.
A report released by the Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) said Christians who have witnessed the increase in online social hostility “are deeply worried.”
“Some fear that the Chinese Communist Party or authorities could be involved in some way,” said the organization in a statement released to the media on Feb. 22.
It said that Chinese authorities have previously used disinformation to attack Falun Gong practitioners, Uyghur Muslims, and other religious communities.
The report said that over 1,000 comments against Christians were posted online before these were eventually censored.
“In other contexts this kind of social hostility, especially when it concerns anything approaching criticism of the authorities, would be quickly censored,” said the report, quoting “observers.”
The issue reportedly started when the Beijing government announced the suspension of religious activities in Hebei and ordered an investigation into all “illegal religious activities” in rural areas last Jan. 8.
“[Afterwards] Sina Weibo (a Twitter-like platform in China) [was] inundated with posts by users accusing a Christian congregation of spreading the virus,” read the report.
“They blame Christians for ‘betraying their own nation,’ undermining their culture and ‘jeopardizing the sovereignty and security of the motherland,'” it added.
The report said the recent development should be of serious concern to democratic governments.
“Although a thousand comments may appear small given China’s size, any new trend in hostility and discrimination against a religious community must be carefully monitored,” said Mervyn Thomas, CSW president.
He said the province of Hebei has a long history of government persecution of Christians, particularly Catholics, including the imprisonment of clergy such as Bishop James Su Zhimin.
The bishop was first reported to have been arrested by Chinese authorities in 1997 and there was speculation last year that he died in detention.