BEIJING (BP) — On Aug. 28, five members of a house church in Fangshan, China, woke at 4 a.m. and traveled for two hours to a public square in Beijing in order to worship with members of the embattled Beijing Shouwang house church.
On their arrival at 7 a.m., waiting police sent the five back to their local police station, according to a report posted on Shouwang’s Facebook page. Officials then urged them to sign documents repenting of their decision to support the Shouwang church. All five refused but were eventually released.
The Fangshan five are part of a growing wave of house church Christians determined — despite the consequences — to support Shouwang Church in its five-month-long stand for greater religious freedom.
Shouwang members have attempted to meet in the outdoor venue every Sunday since April 11, after government officials repeatedly denied them access to a permanent worship place. Church leaders prayerfully decided on this course of action as a means of forcing the government to resolve their dilemma.
More than 600 arrests have been made over the last 22 weeks, including 15 on Aug. 28 and 12 arrests on Sept. 4. Police arrest the Christians before the service even starts and typically free them within 24 hours.
China’s Domestic Security Protection Squad maintains constant surveillance outside the homes of senior church leaders, while police camp outside the doors of other church members from Saturday night until noon Sunday, when service times are technically over, according to China Aid.
“If those national security staff who persecuted believers assume that they can force Christians to give up by increasing the level of persecution … they are destined to be disappointed,” Shouwang’s leaders wrote in August. “Because our brothers and sisters, though have difficulties, are not overwhelmed by these persecutions…. [I]f it is God’s will for us to face such difficulties, many believers are willing to suffer for our Lord.”
On Aug. 14, police detained some 16 worshippers at the square. Among them was Wang Shuanyan of Beijing’s Xinshu house church.
In a letter written after her release on Aug. 16 and smuggled out of China, Wang described how police detained her at 7 a.m. and took her to the Zhongguancun Boulevard police station. The previous Sunday, a police officer had threatened to lock her up for 48 hours if she persisted in coming to the worship site; this time Wang came prepared with a sleeping bag.
Throughout her detention, Shouwang church members, including the wife of senior pastor Jin Tianming, took turns waiting outside the police station for her release.
Wang described how she wrestled with her natural inclination to obey orders and her conviction that “the things [the officers] have done are violations of the law.”
“I believe deeply that all things considered … Shouwang’s outdoor worship, done [at] this time and this way, is right,” she wrote.
By the time fellow Xinshu church members convinced officers to allow Wang snacks and bottled water, Wang had decided to go on a hunger strike.
“Was I fasting or on a hunger strike?” she wrote. “To me it was both. To God I prayed earnestly. To the relevant authorities I was protesting against the repeatedly occurring violence.”
Some China watchers believe the government has shown relative toleration and restraint towards Shouwang’s outdoor worship. But “this can only be true in comparison to extreme violence,” Wang countered in her letter. “We are now used to unrighteous and illegal behavior.”
Wang was one of 17 house church leaders who signed and submitted a groundbreaking petition to the National People’s Congress (NPC) on May 10, calling for a complete overhaul of China’s religious policy.
Police on May 31 detained another signatory, Shi Enhao, pastor of Suqian house church in Jiangsu Province and deputy chairman of the Chinese House Church Alliance (CHCA), in a church raid. In late July he was sentenced — without trial — to two years in a labor camp for “illegal meetings and illegal organizing of venues for religious meetings.”
Police have since ordered Shi’s church members to stop meeting and have confiscated musical instruments, choir robes and donations, according to China Aid.
Zhang Mingxuan, president of the Chinese House Church Alliance, said he previously had taught church members to abide by the law and respect the government but in return had been deprived of many rights, including the right to a passport. Many others shared his fate, Zhang said, such as house church pastor Zhang Tieling of Fan County, Henan Province. Officials recently sealed Zhang Tieling’s house with bricks and knocked his wife to the floor, leaving her in the hospital with a brain injury.
“This is the so-called religious freedom and harmony of China,” Zhang Mingxuan declared.
In a letter to the Chinese president, Mingxuan concluded, “In the past 26 years I have been arrested, beaten and placed under house arrest 42 times just because I speak the truth. Even if you misunderstand me or even kill me or imprison me, I still have to tell you the truth in this letter…. As long as [it means] Christians can freely worship God, I don’t mind dying for this cause.”
It seems many other Chinese Christians are fast forming the same opinion.
While the Chinese government claims freedom of religion through approved bodies such as the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, many Protestant and Catholic churches prefer to worship independently, rejecting government censorship and theological interference — and paying the price. House church pastor Zhang Rongliang — who has been detained five times and served a total of 12 years in prison — was released Aug. 31 from a Kaifeng prison after being detained since 2004. He was convicted on ambiguous charges in 2007 and has languished in prison while suffering chronic diseases and a stroke in 2007.
Experts estimate there are anywhere between 60 and 130 million people attending unregistered Protestant churches in China, compared with just 23 million attending Three-Self Patriotic Movement churches. During the past decade of relative openness, many of these unregistered churches have come “above ground” to meet in large numbers in public spaces — highlighting the inadequacy of current religious policies and creating a government backlash often targeting church leaders.
More than 160 people were arrested at the first outdoor meeting of Shouwang Church. The following shows the approximate arrests from the subsequent weeks: Week 2 (50 arrests), Week 3 (40), Week 4 (30), Week 5 (13), Week 6 (20), Week 7 (25), Week 8 (20), Week 9 (20), Week 10 (14), Week 11 (14), Week 12 (15), Week 13 (19), Week 14 (26), Week 15 (22), Week 16 (35), Week 17 (22), Week 18 (11), Week 19 (16), Week 20 (7), Week 21 (15), Week 22 (12).
Barbara Baker is a writer for Compass Direct News, a California-based news service focusing on the persecuted church. Used by permission. With reporting by Michael Foust, associate editor of Baptist Press.