Hundreds of Christians in an impoverished county in rural China have swapped posters of Jesus Christ for portraits of President Xi Jinping as part of a local government poverty-relief programme, a media report said today.
The Yugan county in Jiangxi province has a large Christian community and about 10 per cent of its population is Christian. More than 11 per cent of its one million residents live below the country's official poverty line.
As the local government redoubles its efforts to alleviate poverty, many believers have been told to take down the images of Jesus, the crosses and the gospel couplets that form the centrepieces of their homes, and hang portraits of Xi instead, Hong-Kong based South China Morning Post reported.
The practice hearkens back to the era of the personality cult around late Chairman Mao Zedong, whose portraits were once ubiquitous in Chinese homes, the report said.
Xi, 64, who has emerged as the most powerful Chinese leader in the recent times was conferred a second five-year term by the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) in its once-in-a-five-year Congress last month.
He has also acquired the status of Mao and his successor Deng Xiaoping in the party as he is the only leader after them whose thought has been included in the party's Constitution.
In Yugan, the officially atheist party is competing for influence with Christianity. By some estimates, Christian population in China is estimated to be around 90 million.
Under Xi, the CPC has made ending poverty by 2020 a top priority.
The report quoted a local social media account over the weekend that in Yugan's Huangjinbu township, the CPC cadres visited poor Christian families to promote the party's poverty-relief policies and helped them solve their material problems.
The officials successfully "melted the hard ice in their hearts" and "transformed them from believing in religion to believing in the party", the report said.
As a result, 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 had disappeared on Monday afternoon, but the campaign was confirmed by villagers and local officials contacted by the South China Morning Post, the report said.
Qi Yan, chairman of the Huangjinbu people's congress and the person in charge of the township's poverty-relief drive, said the campaign had been running across the county since March.
He said it focused on teaching Christian families how much the party had done to help eradicate poverty and how much concern Xi had shown for their well-being.
"Many poor households have plunged into poverty because of illness in the family. Some resorted to believing in Jesus to cure their illnesses," Qi said.
"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," the report quoted him as saying.
Huangjinbu is home to about 5,000 to 6,000 Christian families, or about a third of the total, Qi said.
"Many rural people are ignorant. They think God is their saviour … After our cadres' work, they'll realise their mistakes and think: we should no longer rely on Jesus, but on the party for help," Qi said.
He said the township government had distributed more than 1,000 portraits of Xi, and that all of them had been hung in residents' homes.