A sweeping campaign against house churches in China is sending leaders to prison and forcing many faithful Christians underground
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On a Sunday morning in the fall of 2017, I arrived at Jiangxin Building in downtown Chengdu, walked past rows of parked scooters, and waited for a rickety elevator to take me up to the 23rd floor. As the elevator doors opened, Early Rain Covenant Church was abuzz with activity.
That Sunday, Elder Li Yingqiang preached on Philippians 2 to a packed sanctuary, as latecomers slipped into a side classroom to watch a live feed of the service. Then Pastor Wang Yi baptized more than a dozen people, and the congregation sang the hymn “I Believe in a Hill Called Mount Calvary.”
Today, Sunday mornings look different for Early Rain members. Instead of meeting all together, they gather in homes for worship and log into an encrypted video conference call to hear the sermon. With the church’s leaders imprisoned, small-group leaders pastor church members, and some members have left the church due to the pressure. Even meeting in homes carries a risk: In February, officers raided two gatherings and took all 44 churchgoers into the police station for questioning.
Chengdu authorities shut down Early Rain in December and since then have taken more than 300 churchgoers to the police station. Twelve remain in detention. Authorities are holding Pastor Wang Yi and his wife, Jiang Rong, in secretive detention on charges of “inciting subversion of state power,” which could result in up to 15 years in prison. Authorities have sent some church members back to their hometowns and banned them from returning to Chengdu, while other churchgoers have lost their jobs or their homes. Those who have been released from prison tell of both beatings by police as well as opportunities to evangelize to fellow inmates.
Nearly 950 miles away, the government also shut down Beijing’s Shouwang Church in March. Shouwang’s former pastor Jin Tianming penned a letter of solidarity after Wang’s arrest, stating, “What Pastor Wang Yi declared as his stance on the relationship between the church and the state is also where I stand!”
Shouwang is no stranger to government persecution: In 2011, Beijing officials evicted members of the church from the church’s meeting space and forbade a property manager to hand over the keys to a $4 million building the church had purchased. Police placed Jin under house arrest and arrested parishioners as they tried to meet outdoors at a park. Since then, most church members gather in homes for Sunday worship, while others have joined other churches.
In March, police raided two meeting spaces that Shouwang rented for Bible classes, prayer meetings, and baptisms, and officially banned the church.
Shouwang and Early Rain are two high-profile examples of China’s renewed crackdown on unregistered churches, just one part of the Chinese government’s campaign to “sinicize” religion, which means to reshape religion so that it supports the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The most severe case of this sinicization is in Xinjiang, where Chinese officials are trying to erase Muslim Uighurs’ cultural and religious beliefs by sending more than 1 million to reeducation camps and transforming the region into a surveillance state.
Christians in China are also facing a bitter winter, beginning in February 2018 with the implementation of revised religious regulations. Areas with large concentrations of Christians such as Henan have been hit the hardest, with thousands of churches closed and crosses torn off rooftops. Prominent unregistered churches like Shouwang, Early Rain, Beijing’s Zion Church, and Guangzhou’s Rongguili Church have experienced targeted raids, sending a clear message to churches in China: No matter your size, your prestige, or your connections, we can destroy you.
Yet even as the Chinese government flexes its muscles and tries to shape Christianity into its own image, history shows that the greater the persecution, the greater the growth of the church. Given the Chinese church’s own history, many Christians hope that the fire will refine and strengthen the church.
MAO ZEDONG’S CULTURAL REVOLUTION from 1966 to 1976 saw pastors imprisoned, churches destroyed, and religion ostensibly extinguished. Yet in the shadows, Chinese believers kept their Christian faith alive by meeting in secret, memorizing bits of the Bible they could get their hands on, and evangelizing.
After Mao’s death, President Deng Xiaoping took a different approach to religion: In 1982’s Document 19, he acknowledged the existence of religion and tasked the CCP with controlling religion so that it wouldn’t grow too fast or too large. Purdue sociology professor Fenggang Yang says religions fell into one of three categories: the red market of state-sanctioned religions, the black market of banned “cults,” and the gray market of everything in between, including house churches. While black market religions faced government suppression, gray market religions generally continued unmolested.
As the attitude toward religion relaxed, house churches began meeting openly in rented or purchased spaces in office buildings. Despite some occasional flare-ups, government persecution seemed a thing of the past.
This view of religion shifted with President Xi Jinping’s ascent to power. In an April 2016 National Religious Work Conference, Xi said the party should take a more active role “to guide religious believers to love the motherland and people … to obey and serve the interests of the Chinese nation, to support the leadership of the CCP and the socialist system, and stick to the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics; promote Chinese culture and integrate beliefs with Chinese culture, and contribute to the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
This shift specifically targeted the “foreign religions” of Christianity and Islam. The 2018 Regulations on Religious Affairs forbade landlords from renting space to unrecognized churches, banned Chinese citizens from traveling overseas for religious conferences or operating religious schools, and required churches to implement core socialist values. In essence, Yang noted, the government is trying to eliminate the gray market, forcing churches to join the state-sanctioned church or face suppression.
In the year since the regulations have been in place, both government-sanctioned Three-Self churches and unregistered churches have suffered heavy blows. Regions with large pockets of Christians—such as Henan, Anhui, Zhejiang, and Guangdong—have been the first to feel their effects.
In Henan, a province with 95 million people, government officials burned Bibles, destroyed churches, and tore down crosses from more than 90 percent of all churches, according to Texas-based China Aid. Authorities also shut down two-thirds of the Three-Self churches in order to merge churches, while banning minors and Communist Party members from attending services. Local officials forced some government-sanctioned churches to place pictures of Xi and Mao Zedong inside the sanctuary, while others had to raise the Chinese flag and sing the national anthem before worship.
Even though Henan’s China Gospel Fellowship house church network has long maintained a good relationship with the government, authorities declared illegal all of the thousands of churches in the network. Christians faced pressure outside of Sunday worship as well: Employers would ask Christian employees to either renounce their faith or lose their jobs.
BESIDES LOOKING OUT FOR LOCAL POLICE, in some areas house churches also need to be wary of snooping neighbors: In the city of Guangzhou, the ethnic and religious affairs department announced recently that residents would be awarded up to $1,500 for providing tips about “illegal religious activities,” according to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. The highest-paying rewards are for tips leading to the arrest of a non-Chinese religious leader.
The government’s Three-Self Patriotic Movement and China Christian Council also developed a five-year plan for sinicizing Christianity that includes retranslating the Old Testament—even adding Buddhist and Confucian texts—and adding new commentary to the New Testament to point out supposed commonalities with Chinese-style socialism. In March, online retailers stopped selling Bibles.
“[The CCP’s] aim is not only to control religion, but their real aim is to try their best to destroy and disappear religion,” said Bob Fu of China Aid, noting that sinicized Christianity was no longer real Christianity.
Early Rain’s Wang has spoken out passionately against the persecution of the church—at one point calling for Xi Jinping to repent—and this has made Early Rain the target of the most severe church crackdown in the country. On Dec. 9, police throughout Chengdu led coordinated raids on the homes of Early Rain church leaders and members, detaining more than 100 people. In the months that followed, interrogations, detentions, harassment, and monitoring have continued.
Authorities are now holding Wang and his wife Jiang Rong in an undisclosed location on charges of “inciting subversion of state power,” the same charge the government leveled at the late Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo. Lawyers and family members have not been able to contact them or the 10 other church leaders and members who are in prison. Authorities are holding Jiang—and likely Wang as well—in “Residential Surveillance in a Designated Location,” a type of solitary confinement where torture, injection of unknown medicines, and forced confessions are common.
Yang believes the government’s treatment of Wang is actually more severe than that of Liu, as authorities have gone a step further and charged Jiang with the same crime even though she had never made any public statements criticizing the party. Police kept Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, under house arrest but never locked her up.
“[Wang’s] criticisms have pointed to the spiritual sins and moral problems of the officials and society,” Yang said. “I think it will be difficult to build up a case against Wang Yi as a political activist subverting the Party-state.”
A week after the Early Rain crackdown, 60 police and government officials raided a children’s Bible class at Guangzhou’s Rongguili Church. Officials confiscated church property, took down the ID numbers of the attendees, and issued a notice suspending all church activities. Rongguili, which attracted 5,000 worshippers each week, was founded by the late Pastor Samuel Lamb, a leading house church pastor who spent 20 years in prison for his faith.
Then in March, officials came for Shouwang Church again, shutting down its meeting spaces and officially banning the church. Yet Sunday worship will continue as it has been for the past eight years: gathering in homes, singing along to recorded hymns, reading Scripture passages, and listening to a recorded sermon, all of which are shared on the church’s website.
Shouwang Church members noted that rather than feeling angry, they wanted to see what God is doing amid the persecution and ways that they can be a witness to nonbelievers, including the security guards stationed in front of their homes. Early Rain church members also shared stories of God’s work during the hard times: Shen Bing, the husband of one of the imprisoned Early Rain members, tried to visit his wife in December, but police threw him in prison for five days. At the time, Shen was not a Christian, and when police asked him what he thought about Wang’s preaching, he answered that he didn’t know because he had never listened to Wang’s sermons.
While he was in prison, many people eagerly wanted to hear the gospel, so Shen told them what he knew. When it was time for Shen to be released, the other inmates decided to wash his feet with hot water, which deeply touched Shen. Once he returned home, he started listening to Wang’s sermons, and after a few weeks he professed faith in Christ. In March, Shen posted on social media about how he agreed with one of Wang’s sermons, and police immediately carted him back to prison.
Wang and other house church pastors have been preparing for this latest wave of persecution. Last September, a group of house church pastors including Wang, Pastor Ezra Jin of Zion Church, and Pastor Jin of Shouwang, issued a statement condemning the government’s crackdown on churches. It was later signed by more than 400 church pastors. In it, they pledged, “For the sake of the gospel, we are ready to shoulder losses, and if we have to, pay the price of losing freedom and even life.”
Where are they now?
Here’s an update on some persecuted Christians WORLD has covered in the past:
The Rev. John Sanqiang Cao: A missionary who set up schools in the rural mountains of Myanmar, Cao was arrested in March 2017 after crossing the border into China. Officials sentenced Cao, who has U.S. permanent residency, to seven years in prison for “organizing illegal border crossings.” Today he remains in Yunnan prison.
Gao Zhisheng: A Christian human rights lawyer, Gao was one of WORLD’s 2012 Daniels of the Year. Because of his work representing the marginalized and documenting torture inside Chinese prisons, the government detained him multiple times. In 2014, he was placed under house arrest but disappeared again in August 2017 after an attempt to escape house arrest. Today he is in custody in an unknown location.
Huang Yan: A Christian human rights advocate who worked with Gao, Huang had also experienced torture and multiple detentions. After doctors refused to perform a necessary surgery for her ovarian cancer, she escaped to Thailand for medical care then made her way to Taiwan. The Taiwan government allowed her to stay as she waited for the United States to grant her asylum. In January, Huang finally received refugee status and settled in Los Angeles. —J.C.
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