Thousands of Christians in an impoverished village in rural Southeastern China have taken down posters of Jesus from their walls and replaced them with portraits of President Xi Jinping, after local government officials, as part of a poverty-relief programme, asked them to.

The new campaign seeks to “transform believers in religion into believers in the party”, the South China Morning Post reported, quoting officials.

Qi Yan, the chairman of the Huangjinbu People’s Congress and in charge of the poverty-relief drive in the village, said the campaign had been running since March.

“Many rural people are ignorant,” he said. “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 [Communist] party for help.”

More than 11% of the 10 lakh residents of Jiangxi’s Yugan county live below China’s official poverty line, the report said. The campaign is part of the government’s increased focus on alleviating poverty across the country by 2020.

A local social media account in Yugan said villagers had “willingly” removed 624 posters of Christian religious sayings and images and replaced them with 453 images of President Xi, The Washington Post reported.

The practice of hanging portraits of a leader resembles the personality cult around late Chairman Mao Zedong, whose portraits were once a common feature of Chinese homes, the newspaper said.

A resident from another township in Yugan told the South China Morning Post that many of his neighbours had been told to remove religious artefacts from their homes, and that they will not be given their quota from the poverty-relief fund if they did not do so.