When communist China creates cults of personality, they don’t fool around — and they don’t spare any expense, either. Catholic News Service reports that the government has begun a “conversion” program among poorer Christians to remove religious iconography from their homes. It’s not a replay of the Reformation, but instead an attempt to install Xi Jinping as a figure of worship instead:

Officials in China’s eastern Jiangxi province have replaced religious images displayed by Christian families with portraits of the country’s leader, Xi Jinping. …

The message from officials said the Christians involved had “recognized their mistakes and decided not to entrust to Jesus but to the (Communist) Party” claiming the Christians voluntarily removed 624 religious images and posted 453 portraits of Xi.

The officials also claimed they were “converting” Christians to party loyalty through poverty alleviation and other schemes to help the disadvantaged. Nearly 10 percent of Yugan County’s largely impoverished 1 million people is Christian.

Father Andrew, who declined to give his full name for fear of government retribution, told ucanews.com that the removal of the Christian images involved officials giving money to poor households in return for hanging Xi’s portrait.

Newsweek reported on it earlier in the week, noting that the effort is more malicious than what it seems:

Christians in an impoverished Chinese province have to remove images of Jesus and replace them with pictures of Communist Party Chairman Xi Jinping if they want to receive government assistance, part of a government-sponsored plan to discourage religious practice.

Thousands of Christians in an impoverished region of southeast China have already removed crosses and images of Jesus Christ from their homes and replaced them with pictures of China’s leader, according to a local social media account, participating in a government effort to “transform believers in religion into believers in the party.” The campaign reportedly began in March.

Around 10 percent of the region’s 1 million inhabitants are Christian, and a similar percentage of the population lives below the poverty line. The Communist Party’s effort to link poverty reduction with the party-sponsored atheism is a coercive part of the government’s effort to control every aspect of Chinese society, critics say.

The conversion mission is hardly a secret, according to one activist. The Communist Party has issued posters and other materials to get everyone in on the social pressure to force Christians to abandon their faith and replace it with belief in the state:

This isn’t a change of position as much as it is a change in tactics. Beijing has never allowed Christians much room to operate, usually insisting on taking control of churches in order to make sure that they mainly worship the state. The boost of Xi into idol status is new in terms of extremes, but the Party has been the only god that China’s leadership will allow for any significant purpose. Tolerating the worship of a supreme deity for anything other than private observance raises too many questions about the fallibility of those in power.

This raises questions for those Christian organizations who work with Beijing, including the Vatican, which has tried over several pontificates to regain control over Catholic churches and dioceses in China. Writing in the British journal Catholic Herald, Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith wonders how long the Vatican will continue to work with Xi while Christians get forced into apostasy:

This reminds us that Mr Xi is a totalitarian, who can brook no rivals, and who cannot tolerate the thought that people might worship someone who is not Mr Xi. He is possibly more egotistical that the Sun King himself ever was. It is a reminder, if one were necessary (which it should not be), that Communism with Chinese characteristics is simply not reconcilable with Christianity, or indeed any religious belief. Let us not forget the Chinese government’s persecution of the Falun Gong movement and its Muslim population too. But we do not really need to be reminded of this, because Cardinal Zen, who knows this better than anyone, has told us repeatedly that it is so.

We should be grateful that Mr Xi is having crosses removed and replaced with pictures of himself. It is also good to know that his officials tell us that Christians have “recognised their mistakes and decided not to entrust to Jesus but to the (Communist) Party”. In addition we have the news that hotlines have been set up so children can denounce their own parents for anti-state activities. All of this should banish the temptation to wishful thinking and reminds us that China is Orwellian in its approach to religion, personal freedom and the cult of the state and the great leader.

Given that this is so, why on earth is the Vatican still negotiating with them?

The short, and short-term, answer to this is that engagement likely prevents worse from happening to Christians in China. That’s not a bad answer either, as it’s tough to demand action that might result in explicit pogroms and massacres once the gloves come completely off. But in terms of eschatological impact, there’s not much worse that can happen to Christians than having apostasy forced upon them. Those who resist this are likely to suffer and possibly die in martyrdom.

At some point, Christians around the world have to say enough. And the Vatican is not the only place whence that message should come. Where is the US, the Trump administration, and its incoming Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback?