Residents exercise on the bank of the Yalu river in Dandong, in northeast China on September 12, 2016, as the North Korean town of Sinuiju is seen across the river. North Korea demanded on September 11, 2016 that the United States recognise it as a
Residents exercise on the Chinese side of the river Yalu that serves as the border with North Korea © AFP

Dozens of South Korean missionaries have been expelled from China following a raid on residences and farmhouses in the country’s impoverished north-east, as Beijing intensifies its crackdown on Christianity.

The operation comes as tension mounts over Seoul’s planned deployment of a missile shield — a development that has already spurred China to take retaliatory measures against South Korean companies.

At least 32 Christian missionaries were forced out of China in December and January, according to three people with knowledge of the expulsions, with one account putting the number as high as 60. The South Koreans were helping defectors from North Korea making the perilous journey across the Yalu river that separates the two countries.

Despite a ban on foreign missionary work, authorities in China have usually turned a blind eye to groups operating in the region as the missionaries often provide badly needed funds and supplies. But their activities have come under greater scrutiny over the past two years.

In April last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned against religious “infiltration” and extremism.

“We must resolutely resist the infiltration of religions from abroad and guard against religious extremism,” he said.

The scope and timing of the expulsions have startled missionary groups.

In October, new rules — the first changes to the country’s religious laws in more than a decade — stepped up oversight of religious groups and any travel abroad. In late December, authorities in rural north-east China raided some residential homes and farmhouses, which had been used to shelter both defectors and missionaries.

The missionaries who were swept up were told to leave the country, some within a matter of days, according to one account of the raid.

“[It] was very exceptional,” said a person familiar with the incident. “The missionaries were keeping a low profile. In the past, most missionaries were given a month to leave since their activities in China were not harming the country. This time, it was different.”

Christian groups now fret that mobile phones seized in the raid could be used to pinpoint other missionaries in the region. 

“I believe that Chinese authorities are going to expand their investigation further to the south of China,” said one of the people familiar with the expulsions.

There are thought to be about 100m Christians in China — more than the 86.7m-strong membership of the ruling Communist party. If the religion continues to spread at its current pace, China is likely to be home to the world’s largest Christian population within the next 15 years. 

Freedom of religion is technically guaranteed under the country’s constitution but in practice all religious organisations must be approved by the government, and their activities are strictly regulated and monitored.

The focus on South Korean missionaries comes as Seoul plans to deploy a US missile shield on the peninsula.

The installation is ostensibly to protect against the threat from North Korea but the prospect has rankled China, which says it undermines its own nuclear deterrent and fears it will be used to help US surveillance.

Following the announcement last year of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence platform, China has launched an array of retaliatory measures.

South Korean imports have been stuck at Chinese customs, while concerts and TV appearances by South Korean celebrities have been axed.

On Wednesday, Lotte, South Korea’s fifth-biggest conglomerate, said it would close three retails stores in Beijing following a series of regulatory investigations into its operations in China.

Additional reporting by Kang Buseong in Seoul and Charles Clover in Beijing

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