SHANXI PROVINCE, China (BP) — Three leaders of a house church in northern China have been charged with forming a “criminal clique” and obtaining “illegal income,” the church said, describing the charges as a first in China’s war on religion.
China charged Linfen Covenant House Church leaders Han Xiaodong, Li Jie and Wang Qiang months after their September and December 2022 arrests, the church reported June 29, and following months of harassment against church members.
“The family members and brothers and sisters of the three brothers were not only very surprised when they heard about it, but also disagreed with the content of the lawsuit. Citizens’ religious beliefs, which are protected by the Constitution, have become religious deception and deception in the Yaodu District Procuratorate of Linfen City, and the church that believes in God has been slandered as a ‘criminal group,’” reads an English translation of the post on the church’s website.
“This is really unheard of since the founding of New China. Please pray for everyone.”
Prosecutors allege Li and Han, both preachers, established an “illegal organization” without official approval in Linfen and, assisted by Wang, set up several “illegal activity sites” in the city, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported July 5, referencing an indictment sheet the church posted. The indictment asserts the three “lured” many people into paying tithes and thanksgiving offerings.
The charges are punishable by prison sentences exceeding 10 years and are among a “noticeable increase” in fraud charges against Chinese religious leaders, CSW said in a press release.
“These charges levelled against the leaders of Linfen Covenant House Church are blatantly unjust. This has been made clear by the coercive methods police have used on detainees and church members to extract ‘evidence,’ including RSDL (Residential Surveillance in a Designated Location) detentions and torture,” CSW’s Founder and President Mervyn Thomas said. “This is reminiscent of the 1960s-70s Cultural Revolution, when the population was mobilized to purge religion or belief.
“We call for the immediate and unconditional release of Li Jie, Han Xiaodong, Wang Qiang, Wang Yi and all religious leaders who have been detained or imprisoned on spurious charges designed to crack down on legitimate religious activities.”
The government’s actions against the church date to August 2022, when more than 100 police officers raided an outdoor church-sponsored family event, taking Li and Han into RSDL custody and depriving them of sleep three days and nights, the church reported. The two were officially arrested in September on fraud charges. Wang, detained in November, was formally arrested in December on fraud charges. The men are held in the Yaodu District Detention Center in Linfen City. The men are in their early – to mid-30s and are husbands and fathers, according to the church’s website.
Li’s wife and another co-worker were detained for several weeks on suspicion of fraud before being released on bail, CSW reported. The wives of the three have written letters proclaiming the men’s innocence and advocating for their release.
As early as February, China Aid reported that Linfen authorities were exerting tremendous pressure on church members, their employers, families and relatives. Authorities used coercion and intimidation, and forced some of the targeted individuals to fabricate evidence against the leaders and promise to not attend church, China Aid wrote in two reports dated Feb. 9 and Feb. 7.
Linfen Covenant House Church is the sister church of Zion Reformed Church in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, China Aid said, and is among many congregations in China persecuted for not joining the state-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement.
In 2018, Li was among 400 Chinese pastors and leaders who signed a “Joint Statement by Pastors: A Declaration for the Sake of the Christian Faith,” after China tightened restrictions against churches and religious activities. Early Rain Church Pastor Wang Yi, a major signatory of the letter, was arrested in December 2018 and sentenced to 10 years in prison for allegedly “inciting subversion of state power” and “illegal business operations,” CSW said.
CSW is among advocates calling on the international community to advocate for religious freedom in China.
“The international society must make use of every opportunity to urge the Chinese government to stop the prosecution of unregistered religious groups for practicing their religion and peacefully standing up for freedom of religion or belief in China,” Thomas said.