Christian Conference Hears How China's Christians Suffer for their Faith

Friday, November 12, 2004

By Michael Ireland
Chief Correspondent, ASSIST News Service
November 12, 2004

LONDON, ENGLAND (ANS) -- Speaking at the recent International Christian Human Rights Conference at Westminster Chapel in London, Chinese Christian leader Peter Xu said: "They hung me up across an iron gate, then they yanked open the gate and my whole body lifted until my chest nearly split in two. I hung like that for four hours."

That is how Peter Xu Yongze, the founder of one of the largest religious movements in China, described his treatment during one of five jail sentences on account of his belief in Christianity, at the conference attended by at least 1,000 delegates.

Mr Xu, 61, is not the only Chinese Christian to suffer for his faith. Both Catholics and Protestants have long complained of persecution by the Communist authorities, and human rights groups claim the problem is getting worse, writes Kate McGeown on the British Broadcasting Corporation web site.

According to the Jubilee Campaign, an interdenominational lobbying group, about 300 Christians are in detention in China at any one time, and that number is set to rise, McGeown said.

"China's new generation of leaders are trying to consolidate control of the country as it goes through rapid social and economic changes," said Wilfred Wong, a parliamentary officer for the Jubilee Campaign.

"The Communists feel threatened by any popular ideology which is different from their own," he said.


McGeown says China's Christian population -- especially those who refuse to worship in the tightly regulated state-registered churches -- is seen as one such threat.

According to Mr Wong, the number of Christians in China has continued to rise, exacerbating this perceived threat and causing the authorities to clamp down still further on unregistered churches.

The perception that China's Christians have close links with the West adds to their plight, Mr Wong said.

Christianity is not actually banned in China. In fact, according to the constitution, "citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief."

McGeown said Beijing backed up that statement in 1997, saying that "In China, no one is to be punished due to their religious belief."

But human rights groups and Christians say that the reality is different, she wrote.

"They say you can believe, but you can't evangelize," Mr Xu said. "But that is a natural act for Christians. The bible commands us to preach the gospel."

According to Mr Xu, who has now left China and lives in the US, it is against regulations to worship in groups. He said that one of his arresting officers even told him he could only avoid breaking the law if he prayed under the covers in bed, McGeown writes.

“To an Evangelical Protestant like Mr Xu, joining one of China's state-sanctioned churches was simply not an option -- and it seems many other Chinese Christians agree with him,” she said.

McGeown also said that getting reliable numbers about the number of Christians in China is notoriously difficult. Estimates vary between 40 to 70 million Protestants, only 10 million of whom are registered members of government churches.

“The situation is similar for Catholics. Of the estimated 15 to 20 million Catholics in China, less than half belong to state-approved churches, which put authority to Beijing before authority to Rome,” she said.

“Those Christians who want to avoid the state-controlled religious movements meet in unofficial buildings or even each others' homes - hence their description as ‘house churches’ -- risking fines, imprisonment, torture and even, in some cases, death.”


Human rights groups have documented an increasing number of arrests of Chinese Christians since the beginning of 2004, McGeown said.

“According to the charity Christian Solidarity Worldwide, persecution is becoming more systematic and targeted at large-scale Christian gatherings.

“Since June the charity has documented three mass arrests of unregistered Christians. In each case more than 100 people were detained,” she said.

Amnesty International has reported many cases of detained church leaders in recent years, especially in the provinces of Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Hebei.

McGeown writes that one of the most high profile cases is that of Gong Shengliang, head of the South China Church, who was sentenced to death in 2001. His sentence was commuted to a prison term, but Amnesty has received reports that he has been severely tortured in jail.

In August three Christians were sentenced to jail terms for passing information to foreign governments, and in July state media reported that a woman had been beaten to death after being arrested for handing out bibles, she said.

Peter Xu said that while he was in jail, he saw several people even being killed for their faith, writes McGeown.

"A believer was praying, so a jailer made other prisoners lift him up to the ceiling and drop him to the ground many times until he died," Mr Xu said.

But government crackdowns -- and even torture -- may not make people like Peter Xu give up their faith, McGeown said.

"Despite all the persecution and suffering, God is calling more and more people in China," said Xu.

According to the Religious Prisoners Congressional Task Force, Pastor Xu Yongze was released from prison on May 16, 2000 after serving the entirety of his three-year sentence of “re-education through labor” for allegedly creating an illegal organization.

His sentence was originally four years, but was reduced to three years in December 1997. In reality, Pastor Xu was meeting with other leaders of the house church movement in China, thus raising concerns about lack of control among paranoid Chinese officials. Reports reveal that Pastor Xu was tortured while officials interrogated him.

Freedom House, The Center for Religious Freedom, said on July 14, 1999 that “Protestant Pastor Peter Yongze Xu, China's most prominent underground Protestant leader, was sentenced to three years of labor camp on September 25, 1997, in Zhengzhou, Henan province, for ‘disrupting public order.

“His trial was closed to the public and he was denied a defense lawyer. Pastor Xu, the 56-year-old leader of the three-to four-million-strong New Birth Movement of evangelicals, was arrested on March 16, 1997, as he was meeting with other leaders of large evangelical churches in China. His wife and several of his associates were also imprisoned.”

The article “A Tale of China's Two Churches: Eyewitness Reports of Repression and Revival” by Timothy C. Morgan, published in Christianity Today, July 13, 1998, says that during China's brutal Cultural Revolution in 1968, Peter Xu Yongze, newly called to Christian ministry, surveyed the bleak future facing Christianity in China and was overcome with grief.

Climbing a mountain near his village in the rugged Henan Province, Xu stopped and prayed, "Dear Lord, please revive your church!"

The article says that during the intervening 30 years, Xu evangelized, planted new house churches, and trained local church leaders, eventually creating the Born Again Movement (BAM), which has an estimated 3 million followers independent of the official registered church in China. Spinoffs from BAM, one of the fastest-growing religious groups in China, have an estimated 20 million followers, nearly twice the size of the registered church, which was re-established in 1979.

“But the Chinese government has increasingly employed the strategy of associating charismatic religious leaders with antisocial cults and charging those leaders like Xu with violating criminal laws, not religious regulations,” Morgan’s article says.

It adds: “After Xu's arrest, the official Chinese news agency compared him to David Koresh, the Branch Davidian leader who in 1994 died in a fiery apocalypse in Waco, Texas, as the fbi attempted to arrest him. Both registered-church and house-church leaders, including Samuel Lamb and Allen Yuan, have criticized Xu and his movement for alleged doctrinal aberrations.”

Entitled ‘Don’t Stand in Silence,’ the 15th Annual International Christian Human Rights Conference represented “a unique opportunity for people in the UK to hear authentic, first hand evidence from the members of the persecuted Church,” said CSW Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas prior to the conference.

At the conclusion of the conference, chief executives of CSW, Release International, and Premier Christian Radio gave the following comments on the conference:

Mervyn Thomas, Chief Executive of CSW, said: “My desire is to see Christians throughout this nation refusing to stand in silence at the incredible injustices being faced by the worldwide persecuted Church. I believe that on Saturday we made a big step to seeing Christians in the UK providing a loud voice in support of those in our family who have had their voices taken away.”

Eddie Lyle, Chief Executive Officer of Release International, commented: “We want to resource you to speak out for the persecuted church, a church that is growing in these seriously embattled situations. I have said before that I have a problem with the phrase a silent majority. We want you to go from here as a seriously noisy majority.”

Peter Kerridge, Chief Executive of Premier Christian Radio, added: ''It is a great privilege to work with CSW and Release International to draw attention to the plight of so many in the persecuted church. My prayer is that we will motivate Christians around the UK to take positive action to help all they can. We can do so much but we can't stand in silence.''

According to CSW, the three organizations will also be holding regional conferences scheduled to take place on Nov. 13 at Findlay Memorial Church in Glasgow and on Nov. 20 at City Temple in Cardiff.