Thousands of Christians in an impoverished Chinese village were told to replace their posters of Jesus Christ and other religious imagery with photographs of Chinese President Xi Jinping -- or lose their quota from the poverty-relief fund.
The South China Morning Post reported that Christians in Yugan county in Jiangxi province were ordered to replace posters of Jesus with Xi as part of a local government poverty-relief program that aims to "transform believers in religion into believers in the party."
Qi Yan, chairman of the Huangjinbu people's congress, explained the government's initiative: "Many poor households have plunged into poverty because of illness in the family. Some resorted to believing in Jesus to cure their illnesses."
"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," he added. "Many rural people are ignorant. They think God is their savior ... After our cadres' work, they'll realize their mistakes and think: we should no longer rely on Jesus, but on the party for help."
According to a local social media report, the Huangjinbu township distributed more than 1,000 portraits of Xi, with several families reportedly choosing to hang them in their homes. Officials successfully "melted the hard ice in their hearts" and "transformed them from believing in religion to believing in the party", the report said.
More than 600 villagers "voluntarily" got rid of the religious texts and paintings they had in their homes, and replaced them with 453 portraits of Xi, the report claimed.
One resident of another township in Yugan revealed that officials have been urging believers to remove religious artifacts from their homes as well.
"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," the resident said.
Despite authorities' claims, the resident said many believers did not do so voluntarily.
"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," the man said.
Under Xi, the party has tightened its grip on religious freedom throughout the country. However, it is believed that Christians in China now outnumber the 90 million members of the Communist party. Huangjinbu alone is home to about 5,000 to 6,000 Christian families, or about a third of the total.
The move comes just months after authorities in China ordered children to be banned from joining religious groups or participating in religious activities.
China is ranked 39th on Open Door USA's World Watch List of 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.