New York Times September 24, 2016 by Chris Buckley
KAIFENG, China — The rooms where ruddy-faced Chinese men and women once assembled to pray in Hebrew and Mandarin are silent. Signs and exhibits that celebrated centuries of Jewish life have disappeared. An ancient well, believed to be the last visible remnant of a long-demolished synagogue, was recently buried under concrete and a pile of earth.
After locking down Buddhist monasteries in Tibet and tearing down church crosses in eastern China, President Xi Jinping’s campaign against unapproved religion and foreign influence has turned to an unlikely adversary: a small group of Jews whose ancestors settled in this now faded imperial city near the banks of the Yellow River more than 1,000 years ago.
A few hundred residents had staged a lively, sometimes contentious rebirth of Kaifeng’s Jewish heritage in recent decades, with classes, services and proposals to rebuild the lost synagogue as a museum. Some residents even migrated to Israel. For years, the city government tolerated their activities, seeing the Jewish link as a magnet for tourism and investment.
But since last year, the authorities have come down hard on the revival, in an example of how even the smallest spiritual groups can fall under the pall of the Communist Party’s suspicion. The government has shut down organizations that helped foster Jewish rediscovery, prohibited residents from gathering to worship for Passover and other holidays, and removed signs and relics of the city’s Jewish past from public places.
“The whole policy is very tight now,” said Guo Yan, 35, a tour guide who advocates a distinctively Chinese strain of Judaism and runs a small museum in an apartment filled with pictures of Kaifeng’s Jewish past. “China is sensitive about foreign activities and interference.
Only about 1,000 people claim Jewish ancestry in this city — a drop in China’s ocean of 1.35 billion people or Kaifeng’s population of 4.5 million — and only 100 or 200 of them have been active in Jewish religious and cultural activities, experts say.
Nobody outside the government seems to know for sure why this tiny band of believers came to be viewed as a threat. But officials appear to have become alarmed about their growing prominence sometime last year as Mr. Xi’s government demanded that religious groups and foreign organizations bow to tighter controls. Judaism is not one of China’s five state-licensed religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism and Taoism.
“Xi has said that religion is a major issue, and when he speaks, that has consequences,” said a burly local businessman who has supported the Jewish revival and who, like others here, asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation by the authorities. “They don’t understand us, and worry that we’re being used.”