WASHINGTON (BP)–Leaders from dozens of Chinese house churches are petitioning the Chinese government for more religious freedom in an act that observers call unprecedented.
The text of the petition is not yet public, but ChinaAid — a U.S.-based group that monitors freedom in the country — said the petition, which could endanger the leaders, would be the “first such move in 60 years of communist rule of China.” Interest in the petition was sparked by the government’s ongoing high-profile crackdown against Shouwang Church, an unregistered Beijing congregation that has seen hundreds of its members placed either under house or detained by police since April.
Churches in China must register with the government to be legal, but such registration results in restrictions on their religious freedom — including limits on evangelism and Sunday Schools. The Chinese government has prevented Shouwang from meeting in recent weeks, blocking all congregational attempts to gather either indoors or outdoors. The clash between the government and Shouwang has drawn international attention, including segments on CNN and the BBC.
Most estimates say the Chinese house church movement is significantly larger than the registered church membership.
Baptist Press spoke with Bob Fu, ChinaAid founder and president, about Shouwang, the recent house church crackdown, and the desire for churches to go underground. Following is a partial transcript:
BP: Shouwang has been meeting for many years. Why is China just now cracking down on the church?
BOB FU: The church has been targeted since 2008. Ironically, they had been trying to register with the government, and of course the government wants them to join the government-sanctioned church organization, the Three-Self Patriotic Church. But the government denied their registration attempt. They were tolerated until 2008. In December 2010, there was a government operation, Operation Deterrence — it was a special operation targeting independent house churches. Of course, Shouwang church had purchased a building for about $4 million in December 2009 but has not been able to get the key to the building; the government had been trying every way to sabotage their rental arrangements in different facilities. Their last rental facility was a restaurant that was pressured to not continue working with the church. So Shouwang Church has really been forced to move outdoors.
There are two circumstances that made the government take the radical action like they did in April this year. Number one, Shouwang played an instrumental role in organizing the 200 delegates to the Lausanne [Congress on Global Evangelization in South Africa]. I think, for the first time, the government really saw the independent house churches trying to be on the international stage. That really made the government extremely nervous. Number two was the Jasmine Revolution [in North Africa/the Middle East].
BP: So you think the Chinese government is afraid that what happened in Egypt and other countries could happen to China?
BOB FU: They’re very, very afraid. The Chinese security forces have been on high alert because of what’s happening in Tunisia, Egypt. They are really in panic and in a paranoid mood.
BP: How is the Chinese government’s mindset different from a Western mindset? Why are they so suspicious of Christianity?
BOB FU: Historically, Christianity has always been suspected as a Western force, as a Western religion. In the Chinese government’s propaganda, it’s always been associated with the free world. Of course, the most rapid-growing religion in China is Christianity, especially in the past 60 years. The growth is really astonishing. Some estimate there are 70 to 130 million Christians. Since the Tiananmen massacre 22 years ago, there has been a major revival of the house churches in the cities, especially among the Chinese intellectuals. The Christian worldview and values really, I think, made the Chinese government afraid. The Christian worldview is contradictory to the materialistic worldview. Also, the [house church’s] enormous manifestation of care, love to the society, to the needy — you would think these are the things that the Chinese government also wanted. Almost half of the volunteers and the rescue workers to the 2008 earthquake were Chinese house church members. That became a scary thing to the Chinese leadership. They actually started a campaign to keep out these volunteers from the earthquake area. Some were even put in prison.
BP: They were put in prison?
BOB FU: Yes, for doing good. Of course, when the house churches were helping, they also spread the Gospel. So the government was very scared. Some Christians were detained.
BP: Help our readers understand another key issue: Why would a church not want to be a government-recognized registered church?
BOB FU: Fundamentally, the number one reason is focused on who is the head of the church? Is it the Communist Party, the Chinese government or Jesus Christ alone? The Three-Self Patriotic Movement is nothing but a political organization with a religious uniform. All the leaders are appointed by the Communist Party, the United Front Work Department, and the State Administration for Religious Affairs, and they are salaried. And many of the leaders are also Communist Party members. Secondly, once you join the government-sanctioned church, you lose pretty much all the freedom of evangelism. There are lots of limitations and rules that will forbid you to do any evangelism outside of the four walls of the church building. You can’t baptize anybody under 18 years old, you’re forbidden to have a Sunday School. There are fundamental differences.
BP: Why would the Chinese government restrict Sunday Schools?
BOB FU: This is part of the clash with the Communist Party, because they view those under 18 years old as the successors of socialism…. For children, Sunday School is certainly a forbidden policy.
BP: So in a registered church, a Sunday morning worship service would just be a worship service?
BOB FU: Yes, just a worship service.
BP: ChinaAid says the Chinese government may take new measures against the church. What would those measures be?
BOB FU: We heard form a reliable internal government source, and it collaborated with other sources — apparently the government is planning to take a radical escalation to make some formal arrests on these Shouwang Church leaders.
BP: And we are talking about possible prison time?
BOB FU: Yes.
BP: Is this the most high-profile church-state confrontation you can remember?
BOB FU: In the city setting, it is the most visible. There have been major clashes between house church groups — most of them in rural areas.
BP: A lot of these members have been placed under house arrest. What does that mean, and is it only on Sunday mornings?
BOB FU: For the five church leaders — two pastors and three elders — they have been under house arrest since April 9, which means they don’t have any freedom of movement to get out of the house. There was one occasion two weeks ago [involving a church family] when one little baby fell from the seventh floor of a building and died, so [Senior] Pastor Jin Tianming begged the guards outside his house, and he was escorted by two guards to pray for the baby’s parents in the hospital. For the rest of the members, most of them are not allowed to get out of their homes from Saturday night until Monday morning, and some are prevented from going home from Friday to Monday or Tuesday.
BP: And people are having their jobs threatened for their participation?
BOB FU: Yes, some lost their jobs, some lost their apartments.
BP: Is this serving to educate the public around the world about the lack of religious freedom in China?
BOB FU: Absolutely. This case basically highlights a very moderate church. When Shouwang Church wanted to register, they received lots of criticism, because some house churches do not want to have anything to do with the government. So Shouwang walked an extra mile to register, and now they are being targeted. It will help the free world to see how little religious freedom China has.
BP: What else would you want our readers to know?
BOB FU: I think we should urge the churches in the free world, especially the American churches, to really speak up for this church. We need more churches to speak up, because this church is facing danger. If we are silent, that will be a real mistake. I really do want to make that appeal.
Michael Foust is associate editor of BP. For more information about ChinaAid, visit ChinaAid.org. Join Baptist Press’ Facebook page or Twitter feed to comment on this and other articles. Visit facebook.com/baptistpress or Twitter.com/Baptist Press.