BEIJING (BP)–As millions of Christians worshipped freely around the world Easter morning, more than 500 members of an unregistered Beijing church were under house arrest by the Chinese government and prevented from gathering together at an outdoor site, while another 40 or so were detained after they illegally tried to worship at the location.
It was the third straight week that Shouwang Church defied the Chinese government’s demands not to gather together. The clash has drawn worldwide attention, with more than 160 church members detained during the first week and about 50 arrested last week. Each week, church leaders have released statements saying they would rather obey God than the government. They are attempting to meet outdoors because the government has blocked all attempts by the church to rent or purchase a building.
Churches in China must register with the government, and those that don’t are considered illegal. But registering brings restrictions on growth and evangelism — part of the reason the underground church movement has flourished in recent decades. Shouwang is one of the largest house churches in the country.
A BBC camera recorded the arrests the first week. A CNN camera crew tried to do the same on Easter but was turned back. (Watch the video: http://bit.ly/eaBEqm.) Hundreds of uniformed and plain-clothed police officers were involved in the Easter arrests, which took place at a public plaza, CNN reported. Police and police cars were waiting at the plaza for the members to gather.
As part of the Easter crackdown, the government prevented all church staff, lay leaders and the entire church choir from leaving their homes. Senior pastor Jin Tianming — who has led the public defiance — was one of those under house arrest. The choir had been practicing “for months” for the service, the religious liberty group ChinaAid reported. Some church members were able to avoid government interference by gathering in smaller groups at restaurants.
“One of the deacons returned to his home last Friday afternoon and the police came to ask him if he planned to attend the Easter Sunday service,” church member Kathy Lu told Voice of America News on Easter. “He said yes, so the police said from this moment, you cannot leave this house. I spoke to him an hour ago, and he was still not able to leave the house.”
Church members say they are being obedient to Christ. Some have lost their jobs and even been evicted from their homes because of their stance, with the government pressuring employees and landlords.
“The Bible tells us, as Christians, we must not give up meeting together; furthermore, as the church of Jesus Christ, we should not change our mode of Sunday worship just because someone or some entity decides that we may or may not use a particular gathering place,” the church said in a statement Easter week. “Our attitude before God should be the same as Daniel’s, that is, despite of the pressure and difficulties our circumstance presents, we should behave as we normally would, coming before our God weekly to worship Him and offer up our thanksgiving, praises and petitions.”
If the church could rent or own its own indoor space, the confrontation could stop, the statement said.
Observers say it’s the hardest crackdown in a decade or more.
“We are deeply disappointed that the Chinese authorities chose to disrupt peaceful worshippers who were simply celebrating Easter today,” said ChinaAid’s founder and president, Bob Fu. ChinaAid monitors religious liberty in the country. “By doing this, Chinese government again demonstrates its total disregard for Chinese citizens’ basic religious freedom and freedom of assembly. We continue to call upon the free world to stand firm in solidarity with the persecuted faithful in China.”
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom had released a pre-Easter statement urging the Chinese “to allow all Easter services to proceed without harassment or detentions.” USCIRF is a bipartisan religious panel that reports to Congress on religious rights overseas. USCIRF reported that Wang Zu’on, head of China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs, gave a speech in February calling on government officials to “renew efforts to ‘guide’ unregistered Protestants to worship in state-sanctioned churches and ‘break’ large churches like Shouwang into small groups.”
The Global Times, a newspaper run by the Chinese Communist Party, ran an editorial April 11 arguing that “all Christians, as well as those of other faiths, are Chinese citizens first and foremost.”
“It is their obligation to observe discipline and abide by the law,” the editorial said.
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said Christians around the world should be praying for Shouwang Church.
“How many of our American church members would disappear if officials went about threatening jobs and college placements?” he asked in a column on his website. “While the New Testament commands Christians to obey the righteous laws of a nation, believers cannot bend the knee to the regime as their primary allegiance. No Christian is ‘first and foremost’ a citizen of any earthy kingdom or nation. This is a despotic demand for the idolatrous worship of the state.”
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press.