by Alex Buchan
LONDON, August 7 (Compass) -- China's most famous house church prisoner, Mr. Xu Yongze, is free. The 58-year-old founder of the Born Again movement was released on May 16, after serving a three-year "re-education through labor" sentence for establishing an illegal organization in China.
Xu revealed that he was tortured during interrogation sessions. Three weeks after his release, he told a friend in Beijing that once he had each arm handcuffed to an iron gate, and when the gates were opened, he was stretched up off the ground in a gruesome crucifix position.
"I came to feel how Jesus must have felt on the cross," Xu said. He expressed his appreciation for the international pressure that was put on the Chinese government to treat him fairly.
Xu was originally arrested on March 15, 1997, when police raided a meeting of house church leaders in central China. Initially, no word was heard of him, and Christians worldwide began to fear the worst, especially when official church leaders like Dr. Han Wenzao denounced him as a "cult leader" and refused to admit he was a Christian at all.
There were fears he might be executed. Then Chinese authorities intended to give him a 10-year sentence, but international pressure built up to such an extent that he instead received a four-year sentence, which was decreased to three years in December 1997. Xu's wife -- arrested with him -- served a sentence of a year and a half.
Xu said that during the first months of his detention, he was slapped hundreds of times. He was also handcuffed with both arms behind his back and pulled up in mid-air for beating.
He served his sentence in a labor camp where each prisoner had to string 2,500 Christmas tree bulbs every day with a thin wire. Sources say these decorative lights are exported to the United States. Xu said he was not forced to work and was treated fairly well towards the end of his sentence, so he helped a weaker prisoner meet his quota.
Xu is now recovering in Nanyang city, in Henan province.
No stranger to controversy, Xu Yongze shot to international prominence in April 1988 when he was arrested in a Beijing public park en route to see visiting American evangelist Dr. Billy Graham. Ironically, Xu had been dubbed, "The Billy Graham of China," and his arrest shrouded the American evangelist's first visit to China in more controversy than expected.
But Xu's main claim to fame rests on his record as the founder of the hugely successful Born Again movement, a Henan-based house church network whose membership may run into the millions.
Early in the movement's history there was an insistence on copious weeping as an essential evidence of repentance, though in recent years this distinctive has been toned down. Still, this emphasis on emotion is what led to charges of him being called a cult leader, and not only by those in China's official church, but also by some house church leaders.
It was partly to offset this reputation that Xu convened talks in 1997 between rival house church movements to promote greater mutual understanding. Some believe it was these talks -- billed misleadingly in some quarters as "unity" discussions -- that spooked the Chinese government into wholesale arrests, because they fear any large movement that operates outside official control.
Copyright © 2000 Compass Direct News Service. Used with permission.