DALLAS (BP) — Shi Weihan dangled from a wall inside a Chinese prison, handcuffed to a hook. His interrogators doused him with frigid water and tormented him with electric shocks.
They pried for information: How many Christian books did he give out? What are the names and phone numbers of the pastors he gave them to?
“During that time, the outside world did not know what was happening to me.”
Weihan would not remain anonymous for long. His imprisonment under the Chinese government’s religious crackdown — reported extensively by Baptist Press — would carry him into national publications and be chronicled in detail by the religious freedom monitor ChinaAid.
But Weihan’s journey into the ranks of the persecuted faithful began decades ago with no faith at all.
“Growing up in a communist country, I didn’t believe in God in that time,” Weihan said over the course of several interviews with Baptist Press in October. “I thought it was like a story, not true.”
In 1990, a Chinese man named Joshua — the matchmaker who brought Weihan and his wife Zhang Jing together — gave a Bible to each of them.
“He told me, ‘This book is very good. You take it home to look at it,” Weihan recounted. “Because he was a new believer, he didn’t know how to preach Gospel, but he told me, ‘It’s good. You need a Bible. You need the Gospel.'”
Five years later, at a Christmas party hosted by Joshua, Weihan and his wife placed their faith in Jesus and were baptized the following year.
Over the next decade, Weihan founded a house church called Antioch Victory Church and started the Holy Spirit Trading Co., a Christian publishing house. His company worked to translate Christian books into Chinese and also sold Christian literature with government permission.
But the lack of Christian books and Bibles among many Christians spurred Weihan to give them away to believers across China — without government authorization.
“In America, you can go to a bookstore and find many Christian books, and you can buy a Bible from Walmart,” he said. “But in China, you can’t find a Bible in a typical bookstore or market. It’s not legal.”
Giving away the books was risky; a Chinese Christian was sentenced to two years in prison for merely receiving three unauthorized Christian books.
“But our people need the teaching from God,” Weihan said. “They need God’s Word.”
In the early morning hours of Nov. 28, 2007, about 30 police officers swarmed Weihan’s home and hauled him away, also raiding the Holy Spirit Trading Co.
The police tortured Weihan as they demanded to know how many books he gave out, the identities of pastors and where he preached the Gospel.
“In that time, I prayed to God, ‘I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m trying to preach the Gospel. I don’t want to do something wrong to my government,'” Weihan recalled.
Police also arrested his wife in front of their daughters, Grace and Lilly. Zhang was released after questioning, but police also took Weihan’s younger brother and his wife into custody. Weihan said the police tortured his brother so severely that they caused kidney damage.
Weihan was charged with illegal printing and distribution of Christian literature, but by this time his case had garnered international attention. News of his arrest landed in USA Today, placing an unwelcome spotlight on China as it tried to convince the world ahead of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing that it protects religious freedom.
Weihan was released on bail in January 2008 after authorities said there wasn’t enough evidence to proceed with the charges, but three policemen kept tabs on him 24 hours a day.
“When we went to my father’s home to have dinner, people followed us,” Weihan said. “When we went to a friend’s home, they followed us too. When we went to the market, they followed us — everywhere.”
On March 19, 2008, authorities arrested Weihan once again, charging him with being a “dangerous religious element.” Allowed very little communication with his family or attorney, he was forced to sign a confession that he printed and distributed illegal publications. Prison officials initially denied Weihan medication for his diabetes, which Open Doors News (formerly Compass Direct News) said caused severe weight loss that rendered him “unrecognizable.”
On June 10, 2009, Weihan was sentenced to three years in prison and fined $22,000 for illegal business practices. He said his attorney was under house arrest and could not attend the court session.
The sentence included time served since his first arrest, meaning he would have to spend the next year and a half in prison.
“I was not surprised that I was arrested and put in jail, because in Bible times, Jesus was tortured,” Weihan said through his daughter Lilly’s translation.
During his time in prison, he shared cells with as many as 30 other people, some of them murderers.
“The people in there have no hope,” he said. “They are just waiting to die.”
Weihan gave them the hope of Jesus, preaching the Gospel to his cellmates and baptizing everyone who believed.
“I told them that Jesus can give them new life,” he said.
He also preached to the guards, some of whom turned to Jesus in faith. When Weihan asked for a Bible, a guard gave him one that had been confiscated from a prisoner, and Weihan started a Bible study in his cell.
“China isn’t like America,” he said through Lilly. “You can’t do prison ministry. Somebody has to actually become a prisoner to preach to them.”
Weihan was not the only one who suffered during his imprisonment. His wife was deprived of her husband and his children of their father. His daughters, Lilly and Grace, were told their father was a criminal, that they would never see him again.
Lilly, now 16, recalls how her family began receiving cards and letters from all over the world encouraging them, reminding them that their father was suffering for being faithful to Jesus Christ. One card, written in Chinese characters, simply said, “Your dad is our hero.”
“I really would like to thank [the people who wrote those cards],” Lilly said. “God used them to encourage us and to show us His love.”
On Feb. 9, 2011, Weihan was released from prison. Seeing no future for his family in China, where the government continued to spy on him, they were permitted to exit the country and have taken up residence in Dallas, Texas, where Weihan (who now goes by the name “John Stone”) and Zhang (who goes by “Sarah”) are studying on scholarship at Christ for the Nations Institute.
Weihan asks for prayer that God will use his family to bless others, and that he and his wife will learn English well.
“It is hard to learn another language now, but we still have to do it,” he said through Lilly.
Burdened by the countless people in China who have never heard the Gospel, Weihan hopes more Christians will come and preach Christ in his country.
“Please keep praying for my country,” he said through Lilly. “Pray for China.”
John Evans is a writer in Houston. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).