Police have detained dozens of leaders, congregation members and activists of one of China’s most prominent and influential Protestant “house” church in the latest government action against unregistered religious groups.
Police arrested Pastor Wang Yi of Early Rain Covenant Church, hailed by Rev. Hong Yujie, a friend of Wang as “the bravest pastor in China”, in the city of Chengdu on Sunday, the day after Wang published a manifesto accusing the Communist Party of instituting “Caesar Worship” of Jinping and calling Chinese Christians to resist government regulations that contradict the Christian faith.
Remaining church members said Wang’s manifesto and his open criticism of China’s religious regulation likely prompted his and 100 of their fellow congregants’ arrests.
“President Jinping’s religious regulations and urged worship of the state are morally incompatible with the Christian faith and with all those who uphold freedom of the mind and thought,” Wang wrote in his manifesto, entitled “Meditations on the Religious War” according to The Wall Street Journal.
Teams of police and state security officials in the southwestern city of Chengdu came to the homes of leaders and members of the Early Rain Covenant Church on Dec. 9 and detained them, according to church announcements sent to members and passed to Reuters by churchgoers and activists.
“The time has come. O, Lord! Did you not establish this church for this very purpose?” the church said in one of its announcements. “We will wait for Thee, as one keeping vigil waits for daybreak.”
Church leader Li Yingqiang said Early Rain would continue public services, despite the intensified crackdown on unregistered churches, as long as there remained some members of the congregation to engage in worship. Li said that other house churches in Chengdu have faced the raids with similar resolve. Some, like Zion Church pastored by Jin Mingri in Beijing, retreated from public scrutiny and divided into smaller house churches that worship in secret after authorities closed their building and arrested their leaders.
“Some house churches have to sacrifice,” Li said. “We are willing to do it.” More than 100 people are believed to have been detained, according to a church elder, who declined to be identified.
Neither the Chengdu nor national-level Public Security Bureau responded to faxed requests for comment.
Since Chinese leader Xi Jinping took office six years ago, the government has tightened restrictions on religions seen as a challenge to the authority of the ruling Communist Party. The Chinese regime requires that all places of worship register and submit to government oversight, but some churches have declined to register, for various reasons.
China began implementing new regulations on house churches, state-registered churches, and other houses of worship in February, requiring in part that they register with the state or risk being shut down. The regulations also subject these churches to heightened monitoring and surveillance from local communist authorities, to be implemented at the discretion of those authorities.
The degree to which churches are affected by these regulations depend largely on how local communist authorities choose to interpret the regulations in each region, though they have largely used the new laws to exert more control over churches, even banning children under the age of 18 from attending religious services in several regions. Communist authorities have used the regulations as tools to carry out Jinping’s vision of sinicizing religion in China — which is to force all religions in the country to submit to the authority and teachings of the Chinese Communist party.
Sunday’s raid, while indicative of Beijing’s waning tolerance for unregistered churches, was not the first time Wang and his followers have been arrested. Police arrested the pastor and some congregants earlier in 2018 for holding their annual service in remembrance of Tiananmen Square and the suppression of democracy in China.
Wang, however, remains undeterred from preaching against the injustices of Jinping’s administration. The Early Rain Church is one of the best known unregistered “house” churches in China. Wang, a former legal scholar, activist, and founder of Early Rain, was the first pastor to sign a public petition organized by Early Rain against those regulations.
Members of the church have been unable to contact Pastor Wang Yi, the church’s founder, or his wife, and church groups on the instant messaging platform WeChat also were blocked, the church said in an announcement. Reuters was unable to reach Wang for comment.
Beijing-based journalist Ian Johnson, who wrote about Wang and his congregation in his 2017 book, “The Souls of China,” said on Twitter that the crackdown was “really disturbing news.”
“I’m afraid this is part of a bigger crackdown on unregistered Christian churches as the government pushes its efforts to dominate society,” he wrote.
Police told Zhang Xianchi, 84, a well-known author and church member, not to visit the church, because it had been “outlawed” and that all its top leaders had been detained, according to an account from Zhang shared with Reuters by church members.
A video posted online by activists in China and overseas, which Reuters was unable to independently verify, showed a group of about a dozen plainclothes policemen taking church-goers away from a meeting. In the footage, police told a woman they were taking a man to the municipal public security bureau to be investigated, while a child cried in the background.
Churches across China have been under growing pressure to register since a new set of regulations to govern religious affairs came into effect in February and increased punishments for unofficial churches.
Despite ongoing arrests and torture of Chinese Christians after a raid on an independent church Sunday, the faithful are vowing not to bow to the Communist party “even if it means death.”
“I think a lesson we can learn from them is they continue to say that, ‘No matter what may come, we will continue to serve the Lord. We will continue to stand strong in our faith,’” said Gina Goh, Southeast Asia regional manager for International Christian Concern.
“Their pastor, a lot of elders, actually wrote letters to their congregation saying that, ‘We will not bend, even if it means jail, even if it means death. We will continue to preserve our faith,’” Goh told Baptist Press Tuesday.
Authorities reportedly blocked the social media accounts of Early Rain members and cut the phone line to the church as the raid got underway. One witness claimed that Chinese police had tracked down church members using the signals from their smart phones.
According to Goh, officials had beaten, tortured, and denied food and restroom accommodations to the Christian detainees. Some of the Christians were dragged along the ground, stepped on, bound to chairs, and had handfuls of hair pulled from their scalp, she reported.
Some of those arrested have been placed under house arrest while others have been set free. Officials told a number of the faithful to sign pledges that they would never attend services again.
“The police said our church is an illegal organization and we cannot attend any more gatherings from now on,” said member Zhang Guoqing after being released from detention.
Since the Sunday raids, arrests of church members at homes, workplaces, and on the streets have continued.
The latest crackdown on “illegal” churches that operate outside strict government control is another example of President Xi Jinping’s attempts to “Sinicize” religion, making all religious practice conform to the ideals and principles of Chinese communism.
In September, authorities interrupted services at some five churches in central, south, and southwest China, pulling down crosses, blocking entrances, disbanding worship, and harassing church members.
One elder of the Early Rain Covenant Church who was arrested early Tuesday wrote a letter before his arrest to other church members who were still at large.
“Beloved brothers and sisters, I am writing this letter in hiding,” he said. “May you all be filled with joy in the Gospel of Christ. May you welcome, filled with hope, the even heavier cross and more difficult lives that lie ahead of you. Christ is Lord. Grace is King. Bear the cross. Keep the faith.”
Goh said that the Chinese government is engaging in more overt persecution of Christians on a broader scale than in the past.
“This is not completely new, but for something that is this large-scale, it is new for sure,” Goh said. The goal of the Communist party is to force Christian churches into allegiance to the state-controlled Three-Self Church, whose congregations must display government flags, sing patriotic songs, and praise government leaders, Goh said.
Goh also said that officials had targeted the popular Autumn Rain Church to “serve as an example to smaller churches,” since in its several locations it comprises a membership of a thousand members or more.
In testimony at a U.S. Congressional hearing in Washington in late September, China Aid founder Bob Fu compared Chinese Communist Party (CCP) persecution under President Xi Jinping to the days of Mao Zedong.
“The CCP’s policies and principles for the management of religious affairs are returning to those evident in Mao’s era,” Fu said.
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