Officials Blame 'Jesus Fever' for Growth of Unregistered Churches
by Sarah Page
BANGKOK (Compass) -- The spread of the SARS virus has not distracted Chinese officials from their campaign against unregistered churches. At least 52 key house church leaders have been arrested in recent months. Police also arrested and fined hundreds of "ordinary" Christians in the first four months of 2003.
The growth of the underground church, attributed in some official documents to "Jesus fever," has enraged Chinese authorities. During the National People's Congress in March 2003, officials agreed to continue the "Strike Hard" campaign against all unauthorized groups. These include "separatists, terrorists and cult organizations." Unregistered churches are included in the list of "illegal cults."
China's constitution requires all churches to register with the government. However, strict limitations are placed on official churches and many Christians prefer to go underground and practice their faith without compromise.
On March 25, police raided a house church meeting in Nanyang county in southern Henan province. At least 20 people were arrested, including a Dutch citizen. Local Christians were released after questioning; however, they were also fingerprinted and fined.
On April 2, senior house church leader Elder Chan was arrested in Anhui province. Officers of the Public Security Bureau (PSB) followed Chan's son, 17, as he went to meet his father and arrested both of them. The son was released three days later, but Elder Chan remains in detention.
As one of the "most wanted" house church leaders in China, Chan has evaded capture for the past four years. For months he has moved from house to house, meeting with his family only on rare occasions. His situation is precarious. Gong Shengliang, a house church leader arrested in December 2001, received the death sentence, although it hasn't been carried out. Chan could easily share the same fate.
On April 4, police arrested 120 Christians at a meeting in Pingdingshan. This was just one of four mass arrests in Henan province in recent months. However, the April 4 arrest was significant because it involved several key house church leaders.
Ordinary Christians are usually questioned, beaten, fined and released. Local PSB officers can sentence them to three years of "re-education" without trial, but in practice this rarely happens. The main targets of the raids are leaders of the house church movement.
Twenty of those arrested on April 4 were released within a few days. The remainder regained their freedom by the end of April, largely through the mediation of a Chinese-American arrested with the group who used his influence to gain the prisoners' release.
One of the leaders arrested and later released was Wang Xincai. Xincai was first arrested in 1983 and sentenced to 15 years in prison for his involvement with a house church movement. He was released in 1994, but arrested again in 1997, leading to a further three-year incarceration in a labor camp.
Xincai, arrested on April 4 and released on April 23, has spent 16 of the last 20 years in prison for his faith.
Another series of arrests took place in Sichuan province during the third week of April. A Christian from the group arrested in Henan on March 25 had traveled to Sichuan to meet with Christians there. He may have been identified while traveling and followed by the PSB, leading to the further series of arrests in Sichuan. Road blocks and identity checks are now common in China because of the SARS epidemic. These checks make it very difficult for known house church Christians to travel without attracting attention.
Article 36 of China's Constitution declares, "No state organ, public organ, or individual may ... discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion." A white paper issued by the Chinese government in October 1997 reiterates, "In China, no one is to be punished due to religious belief."
As recent events have shown, the reality is quite different for millions of house church Christians in China.