China city offers cash for information in religion crackdown

FILE - In this Saturday, March 31, 2018, file photo, Chinese acolytes pray during a Holy Saturday Mass on the evening before Easter at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, a government-sanctioned Catholic church in Beijing. A southern Chinese city is offering cash rewards for information about "illegal religious groups" as the ruling Communist Party continues to tighten its grip over faith communities. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File)
FILE - In this Saturday, March 31, 2018, file photo, Chinese Bishop Joseph Li Shan, center, walks down the aisle during a Holy Saturday Mass on the evening before Easter at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, a government-sanctioned Catholic church in Beijing. A southern Chinese city is offering cash rewards for information about "illegal religious groups" as the ruling Communist Party continues to tighten its grip over faith communities. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File)

BEIJING — A southern Chinese city is offering cash rewards for information about "illegal religious groups" as the ruling Communist Party continues to tighten its grip over faith communities.

A notice posted on the official website of the Guangzhou Department of Ethnic and Religious Affairs said up to 10,000 yuan ($15,000) would be paid for verified information and assistance in hunting down key members and leaders of illegal foreign religious groups and revealing their structures.

The department said smaller rewards would be offered for reports about religious venues set up without permission and behavior encouraging "religious extremism."

"The meaning of this document is to protect the lawful, prevent the illegal, contain extremism, resist infiltration and crack down on crimes," the department said in commentary on the incentives.

Under President Xi Jinping, the officially atheistic ruling party has sought to eliminate all religious expression not under its direct control, especially by Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim ethnic minority groups now being held in internment camps in Xinjiang where they are forced to swear allegiance to Xi and the party and condemn Islam and their traditional culture.

China has sought to defend itself against charges of cultural genocide, painting its critics as seeking to smear China's reputation. It originally denied the camps' existence, then said they were established to provide vocational assistance to steer people away from extremism. China has rejected any independent outside monitoring of the camps.

China's reputation for taking a hard line against religions — Muslims in particular — has drawn growing global attention. The man arrested in the March 15 New Zealand mosque attacks said in his online manifesto that China is the nation that most aligns with his political and social values.

Earlier this month, a U.S. envoy on religion called for an independent investigation of the detentions and for the release of those being held, describing the situation in Xinjiang as "horrific."

Sam Brownback, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, said China has done nothing to assuage concerns from the U.S. and others over the detentions and accused it of being "at war with faith," drawing a furious response from Beijing.

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