Church Harassment in Eastern China Worsens

Friday, August 24, 2001

by Paul Davenport

BEIJING (Compass) -- Christian leaders in both the unofficial house churches and the registered "Three Self" churches in eastern China confirmed in June that their situation has become more difficult.

The evangelical leaders generally agreed that several factors are responsible for the increased pressure against the church in China.

First, the continuing government attacks on the Falun Gong cult has caught some churches in the same "net." The situation for Christians is compounded because authorities have a related campaign against "heretical sects and cults" -- which often includes unregistered house church Christians.

Second, the mobilization of the Public Security Bureau to crack down on crime in a "Strike Hard" campaign has resulted in an increased number of arrests.

Three, Nanjing seminary head Bishop Ding has intensified his campaign of "theological construction" to impose liberal theology on pastors, teachers and seminary students in the Three Self state-controlled churches.

Four, the drive to force house churches to register continues unabated.

In Shanghai, watchfulness by local "street committees" combined with information "tips" by some Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) workers in the main city churches forces most house churches in central Shanghai to limit the number of their members to 50. Often the number is under 20 to avoid undue scrutiny. One house church has suffered two years of police harassment, which has included videotaping of Christians leaving meetings. Venues and times of many house church meetings must be constantly changed.

Many in government are paranoid that the growth of the church will lead to the overthrow of the Communist Party. A church leader under interrogation was told by a police officer, "The more people believe in Jesus, the sooner 'Red China' will have to change." In reality, the vast majority of Chinese Christians steer clear of political activity.

In Nanjing, the heart of Ding's "theological construction" campaign, a state church leader said that many house churches had gone underground. Some TSPM leaders were wrongly labeling them as heretics. "Heresy" was ultimately being defined by the government, despite Beijing's claim of separation of church and state.

This leader further pointed out that the current crackdown on crime had also targeted the church. This spring, believers were asked to fill in forms giving their identification numbers and addresses and also asked leading questions about whether state regulations were being followed and whether "foreign infiltration" was being resisted.

Churches at the grassroots level in the countryside in Jiangsu province are put under strict control. There is a tight network of surveillance and management stretching down from the provincial level through the municipal level to county, rural township and village levels. In many areas, the TSPM has a local organization covering several villages.

Because of this control, it is very difficult for rural meeting points to get permission for city pastors to visit them to preach or give training. Evangelicals are also under great pressure in Nanjing and throughout Jiangsu province as an intensive campaign to enforce Bishop Ding's modernist theology has been undertaken during the last year, down to the grassroots level.

In Anhui province, west of Shanghai, house church leaders confirmed continuing pressure. The situation is tighter than last year due to the authorities' clampdown on Falun Gong and the anti-crime campaign. There are often articles in the local provincial newspapers attacking unregistered Christians. Unregistered house-churches are labelled as cults and registration is strictly enforced. House church meetings in the center of Hefei, the provincial capital, rarely number more than 30, although in the suburbs, meetings of over 100 are still possible.

Last year the police raided a training class for church leaders. About a dozen believers were taken to the police station, stripped and badly beaten. Most were fined and released after a few days, although some leaders were kept in prison for up to two weeks.

Last winter, a house church preacher named Zhang was released six months early from a three-year prison sentence. However, he was very badly treated in jail. He now has serious mental problems, but his faith is still intact.

In March, four house churches in the suburbs of Hefei were ransacked by the police and then closed. In Anhui province, Sunday school work is very rare. If discovered, the TSPM officials report it to the police. Nevertheless, at least one group with 60 children is active. The teachers rely on one copy of Sunday school teaching material obtained from Hong Kong. There is a dearth of every sort of Christian literature except for Bibles.

Bishop Ding's anti-evangelical campaign is also being pushed in Hefei. TSPM pastors throughout Anhui province come to the city for political indoctrination twice a year, and some are sent to Nanjing and Shanghai for further training. However, the influence of the movement in the countryside is still minimal: rural TSPM churches and meeting points are still free to preach the gospel.

Christianity is completely prohibited in two counties in western Anhui. Jinzhai and Huoshan counties were old revolutionary base areas of the Red Army before 1949. Today, elderly but influential Party leaders have determined to prevent the spread of Christianity there. Not even the state-controlled TSPM is allowed to function. There are one or two very underground house churches, but this large area is largely unevangelized.

The banning of Christianity is clearly unconstitutional, but Party officials still have great power to do as they wish. One Nanjing Christian leader summed up the situation using an old Chinese proverb: "China is still "wufa wutian" -- officials act arbitrarily defying laws human and divine." Until this is remedied, China's house church Christians can continue to expect harassment, unjust fines and arrests.

Copyright 2001, Compass News Direct. Used with Permission.