NANJING, China (BP)–Wide-ranging persecution of Chinese Christians has dashed hopes of greater religious freedom from the new law on religion that took effect March 1, according to a Compass Direct report recounting a wave of arrests in May, June and July.
The new Regulations on Religious Affairs encouraged Protestant and Catholic house churches to register with the relevant government body. Compass described younger house church leaders as being optimistic about the law, while an older generation of leaders — those who survived the Cultural Revolution — were suspicious of the government’s motives.
The arrests in recent months have cast further doubt on the government’s intent to improve religious liberty, Compass noted in its July 20 report.
Police surrounded an entire village in the Henan province in east-central China on June 24 during a leadership training program for house church pastors, and about 100 pastors from major cities in the province were arrested, according to the China Aid Association (CAA). Most were released the same day after questioning, but nine of them, including the leading pastor, Chen Dongming, were detained.
A month earlier, on May 24, police arrested three Christian women in another part of Henan province. Liu Lianying, Xue Haimiao and Zhang Xiulan were arrested while visiting a Christian leader, CAA reported; police held them for two days and brutally beat them, to the point where Lianying, 52, suffered a heart attack.
CAA also reported the arrest of 20 house church leaders in the Shanxi province in northern China. Pastor Zhang Guangmin and Elder Li, who were leading a Bible training class, were held for two weeks and one month, respectively, in a local detention center.
More than 1,000 miles to the west, in Xinjiang province, Chinese border guards detained 12 Christians from the mainland who were traveling to Pakistan. According to Compass sources, police detained them for several days after one member of the group admitted they were going as missionaries.
On May 22, police raided approximately 100 house churches in the Jilin province in northeast China. In one of the largest mass arrests in recent years, CAA reported that about 600 house church Christians were detained; most were released after interrogation, but about 100 leaders were held in custody.
Compass described the May raid as unique because the majority of Christians arrested were not peasants but university students and even professors from Changchun University. Compass noted that this mass arrest was in line with recent internal Communist Party guidelines to stop Christian groups from meeting on campus.
The spread of Christianity among educated Chinese was highlighted in an article in The Economist on April 23, titled, “Christianity is becoming popular with China’s urban elite.” Compass noted that the trend “clearly worries the Chinese government.”
In Beijing, officials postponed the trial of prominent house church pastor Cai Zhuohua in July. Zhuohua was arrested in September 2004 for illegally printing Christian literature. Zhuohua, along with his wife and two other church members, were charged with “illegal business practices,” although Zhuohua has insisted that the 200,000 Bibles seized were for free distribution to their church network and therefore did not qualify as a business enterprise.
Zhuohua’s lawyer claims that Chinese authorities frequently charge people with economic crimes as a cover when dealing with religious or political issues, according to a BBC report on July 6.
Police have also focused their attention on the unofficial Chinese Roman Catholic Church in recent months, Compass noted.
According to Asia News, members of an unregistered Catholic church in China’s Hebei province wrote a letter on June 8 exposing a wave of arrests ordered by their local religious affairs department.
The letter claimed that Bishop Jia Zhiguo, 70, was held in solitary confinement between the death of John Paul II on April 2 and the election of the new pope, Benedict XVI, on April 19 and that the bishop has since been arrested and taken to an unknown location.
Compass noted that the Chinese government refuses to accept the authority of the pope over the Chinese Catholic Church while, in turn, Bishop Jia Zhiguo and the majority of Hebei’s 1.5 million Catholics refuse to accept the state-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association.
The letter from Hebei Catholics also alleged that Wang Zhenguo, director of the local religious affairs department, threatened to blow up a planned new church, even though local villagers had a permit to build it.
Church members said provincial authorities had established a special “Catholic Church Unit” under the leadership of Deputy Provincial Governor Chen Xiyun for the sole purpose of crushing the Catholic Church in Hebei.
Xu Mei is a writer for Compass Direct, a news service based in Santa Ana, Calif., focusing on Christians worldwide who are persecuted for their faith. Used by permission.