Wave of Arrests in China Submerges Hope in New Regulations

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Legal reforms fail to improve religious freedom.

by Xu Mei

NANJING, July 20 (Compass) -- Wide-ranging persecution of Chinese Christians in recent months has dashed hopes of greater religious freedom from a new law on religion that took effect in March.

China adopted the new Regulations on Religious Affairs on March 1. They encouraged Protestant and Catholic house churches to register with the relevant government body. Younger house church leaders were optimistic about the law, while an older generation of leaders -- those who survived the Cultural Revolution -- were suspicious of the government’s motives. (See Compass Direct, “Chinese Christians React to New Religious Regulations,” March 9.)

A wave of arrests in May, June and July has cast further doubt on the government’s intent to improve religious liberty.

Police surrounded an entire village in Qi county, Henan province on June 24, during a leadership training program for house church pastors. About 100 pastors from major cities in Henan 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 Yiyang county, 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 Liu, 52, suffered a heart attack.

CAA also reported the arrest of 20 house church leaders in Pinglu county, Shanxi province, northern China. Pastor Zhang Guangmin and Elder Li, who were leading the Bible training class, were held for two weeks and one month respectively in the local county 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 Changchun, Jilin province, northeast China. In one of the largest mass arrests in recent years, around 600 house church Christians were detained. Most were released after interrogation, but CAA reported that around 100 leaders were held in custody.

The May raid was unique as the majority of Christians arrested were not peasants but university students and even professors from Changchun University. This 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, entitled, “Christianity is becoming popular with China’s urban elite.” The trend clearly worries the Chinese government.

In Beijing, officials postponed the trial of prominent house church pastor Cai Zhuohua in July. Cai was arrested in September 2004 for illegally printing Christian literature. Cai, along with his wife and two other church members, were charged with “illegal business practices,” although Cai insists that the 200,000 Bibles seized were for free distribution to their church network and therefore did not qualify as a business enterprise.

Cai’s lawyer claims 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.

According to Asia News, members of an unregistered Catholic church in 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. The bishop has since been arrested and taken to an unknown location.

The Chinese government refuses to accept the authority of the pope over the Chinese Catholic Church. In turn, Bishop Jia Zhiguo, along with the majority of Hebei’s 1.5 million Catholics, refuses 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.

On July 5, Asia News received word that officials had arrested the bishop and taken him to an unknown destination.