A Chinese Catholic deacon holds a bible at the Palm Sunday Mass during Easter Holy Week at an "underground" church  on April 9, 2017 near Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province, China.
CNN  — 

The Bible appears to have been removed from online marketplaces in China, as Beijing clamps down on how its citizens practice religion.

China has always controlled sales of the Bible, only allowing it to be distributed and printed by state-sanctioned churches, but in recent years it had been available to buy online.

That loophole now appears to be firmly closed. Searches for “Holy Bible” did not return results on JD.com, and results on Amazon.cn did not include the main text, but did include study guides and the Koran.

On Taobao, China’s biggest online marketplace, a search returned results for the “baby food bible” and the “autoimmune disease healing bible,” but not the Christian scripture, though some related products such as an illustrated set of children’s Bible stories were still available.

JD.com, Amazon.cn and Taobao did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Thursday was a public holiday in China.

Two online merchants told CNN customers may still obtain copies of the holy book from them through private messages, but public listing of the Bible is now impossible on Taobao.

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Life as a Catholic in China
03:05 - Source: CNN

Historical hostility

Sarah Cook, senior research analyst for East Asia at Freedom House, said the sales ban “is an important example of how internet censorship intersects with restrictions on religious freedom.”

“Sensitive religious topics and groups are among the most censored in China,” she said. “In our research we found the Chinese authorities increasingly using more high-tech methods to control religion and punish believers – including surveillance and arrest of believers for sharing information online.”

Religious practice in China is tightly controlled by the government, with the five recognized faiths – Chinese Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism and Taoism – supervised by official organizations such as the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church or the Buddhist Association of China.

According to a recent five-year plan on Christianity in China, published by the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), maintaining the “principle of independence and self-management” is important due to the “humiliating history of the Chinese people” and the use of Christianity by the powers of “colonialism and imperialism.”

Chinese Catholic bishops are not appointed by the Pope, which has been a key sticking point between Beijing and the Vatican since relations broke down in 1951.

Progress did appear to have been made in recent weeks, with some Chinese officials saying a deal with the Holy See could take place over Easter, but this did not pan out.

William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International, said the Vatican “should probably take this issue into consideration in its discussions with their Chinese counterparts – since the banning of the sale of Bibles is obviously a worrying move demonstrating the worsening state for freedom of religion in China.”

Religious oversight

Analysts said China is currently undergoing a major shift in how it governs and sanctions religion.

The United Front Work Department, a previously shadowy department of the ruling Communist Party that oversees Chinese influence efforts overseas, recently took over responsibility for ethnic and religious affairs, further strengthening the Party’s absolute control over society.

According to a new government white paper on religious freedoms, published this week, faiths must “adapt themselves to the socialist society.”

“Religious believers and non-believers respect each other, and live in harmony, committing themselves to reform and opening up and the socialist modernization, and contribute to the realization of the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation,” the paper said, listing official Communist Party policies.

“(There is) a broader trend under President Xi Jinping to more tightly control religion, especially Christianity,” Amnesty’s Nee said. “It’s absurd that the government claims to promote religious freedom at the same time that they’re banning the sale of Bibles.”

Efforts are underway to produce a new version of the Chinese Bible, with a more “Sinicized” text, according to the SARA five year plan.

“The possibility of the Bible’s being removed because of planned efforts to engage in and publish official reinterpretations would fit with a broader effort by the atheist (Communist Party) to actively interpret religious scriptures that we’ve seen for Islam, Tibetan Buddhism, and to a lesser extent to date, Christianity,” Cook said.

She said the move could backfire on the authorities however, alienating mainstream Chinese Christians who are “otherwise apolitical … and perhaps encouraging them to jump the Great Firewall or seek out extralegal avenues for obtaining a copy of the Bible.”

CNN’s Steven Jiang and Serenitie Wang contributed reporting from Beijing.