NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The Chinese government executed three house church leaders in November on murder convictions in what the leaders of two Christian organizations ministering in China describe as part of a vicious government campaign to eliminate one of the country’s house church groups.
Despite evidence that the defendants from the Three Grades of Servants movement had been severely tortured into confessing, the Chinese government secretly executed the group’s founder Xu Shuangfu along with Li Maoxing and Wang Jun in late November for the murders of leaders of Eastern Lightning, widely regarded as a violent Chinese cult.
“Chinese government officials know the West will not tolerate such blatant religious persecution,” said Paul Hattaway of Asia Harvest. “But if they manage to pass it all off as a domestic criminal matter, the West is largely silenced.
“In the past the Chinese have even cleverly defended such crackdowns by asking, ‘If America is able to prosecute the Branch Davidians, and Japan the cult that let off sarin gas in the Tokyo subway, then why can’t we also deal with dangerous cults in our country?’”
The government’s persecution against Three Grades, which has been ongoing for several years, has included the imprisonment of hundreds of members, according to other house church pastors, and the deaths of at least 15 people. Along with the three men executed, three other leaders were given two-year suspended death sentences and 11 were sent to prison for sentences of three to 15 years.
The three men had been convicted of murder earlier this year in Shuangyashan City in China’s Heilongjiang Province. Their appeal was heard in October and the verdicts were upheld.
Defense attorneys contended that no direct evidence linked the men to the crimes other than the confessions the men and other church members made after being tortured. Chinese law prohibits the use of confessions obtained through torture.
“The defense lawyers have clear evidence that those three were tortured,” said Bob Fu, president of China Aid Association. “During the trial, they saw the scars and wounds on [the defendants’] bodies.”
According to news reports, as many as 20 Eastern Lightning leaders were killed in 2002 as a result of clashes with Three Grades of Servants. Eastern Lightning has been accused of using kidnappings, violence and seduction of pastors in an effort to take members from other groups. Fu called Eastern Lightning “a mafia group with Christian uniforms.”
In April 2004, Xu was kidnapped and relatives received a demand that a ransom of more than $350,000 be paid. Later, it was learned that Xu was under arrest by the government. About 90 other leaders of his group also were arrested during this time.
During his imprisonment, Xu, who was believed to be in his 60s, and most of the others arrested were subjected to severe torture. Xu’s ordeal included being shocked with electrical devices, hung by his wrist for hours at a time and sleep and food deprivation, according to his lawyer.
He finally confessed, according to his defense lawyer, because the torture was so severe “that he would rather die than live in such a dreadful condition.”
According to the religious rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Xu’s daughter said her father revoked the confession immediately after interrogation records were read in court and stated that it was signed under severe torture.
Lawyers and relatives were not informed of the executions until after the bodies of the three men had been cremated. Fu believes the bodies of the three men were cremated by the government to eliminate physical evidence of the torture.
The appeal process and executions were completed about a month before the Jan. 1 enactment of a new law that gives the Supreme People’s Court sole authority to sentence people to death.
Fu said he believes Three Grades of Servants had been targeted by the government because it has been so successful. With as many as 500,000 members, the group is aggressive in church planting and evangelism, well financed by members and well organized, Fu said.
The group has been labeled a cult by the government, but Fu and Hattaway believe that label is unwarranted partly because it is difficult to know the group’s beliefs and practices because of the secrecy many Chinese house churches require to protect themselves from the government.
Fu said he has never read anything by the group that contradicts essential Christian doctrine, but he does have concerns about their practices, which reportedly include corporal punishment for church discipline.
“Given the evidence that I have so far, I still think their main doctrines are orthodox, but I don’t have sufficient knowledge to know more about accusations, especially regarding their practices,” Fu said.
Regardless of whether the group is a cult, other house church leaders are concerned that the Chinese government disregarded its own laws to convict the men and will do the same to other house churches.
The government’s strategy, Hattaway said, is to label a group an “evil cult,” usually by the China Christian Three Self Patriotic Movement, one of two government-sanctioned Protestant groups in China. An article usually comes out in the Three Self magazine Tianfeng listing a group’s crimes and heretical beliefs and practices. The government then arrests, interrogates, prosecutes and even executes members of the group
“The worst part of the process is that so many Christians believe what they read and do not question the validity of the information,” Hattaway said. “This is a very dangerous thing to do.
“[The Chinese government] is conducting a similar attack on the South China Church at the moment, with as many as 700 of their members being arrested and prosecuted for belonging to an ‘evil cult,’” Hattaway said.
He added that the “Born Again” house church movement suffered a similar fate and several other main house church movements in China are on the government’s cult list.
“Any house church now will likely be called ‘evil cults’ if they refuse to register with the Chinese government,” Fu said, “and they will face severe persecution like this. No church should feel they will be exempted.”
Said Hattaway, “Some of the house church leaders I know have told me they are deeply concerned that a similar fate awaits them.
“If their group is one of those placed on the list of ‘evil cults’ they know it is a matter of time before they are also targeted for systematic destruction,” Hattaway added.
Fu called on Christians worldwide to find out what’s really going on in China and not rely only on news reports. When they know of specific cases, he asks that they pray.
“We ask our American brothers and sisters to take more action,” Fu said. “Write to President Bush and other elected officials to take specific action against the persecution and to urge the Chinese government to obey its own constitution and its own laws.”
Members in the house church movement in China also need to learn from what happened to the Three Grades of Servants and realize that the government will use any means to destroy a group, Fu said.
“Church members should be careful before the Lord, before the people and before the government,” Fu said. “If there are any unbiblical practices, even among church members, it will be used by the government to damage the whole church.”
If a church member is even suspected of a crime, “the government’s real motivation is not to seek justice,” Fu said, “but to destroy the house church group.”