Christians may face increased controls as government reacts to growth, public discontent.

BEIJING, February 4 (Compass Direct News) – Concerned by the growth of unregistered house church groups in an uncertain political and social climate, the Chinese government has ramped up efforts both to identify Christians and to portray Christianity as a subversive foreign force.

Sources told Compass that authorities in recent months have been quietly gathering data on church growth, with surveys at universities and workplaces pointedly asking whether respondents were Christians. The surveys seemed largely unconcerned about other religions.

At the same time, Communist Party officials have called meetings at various institutions in the capital to discuss supposed dangers of foreign religious influence. On Dec. 20 officials called a meeting at one of Beijing’s most prestigious cultural colleges to lecture faculty members about such dangers. A Christian teacher forced to attend told Compass that the lecturers distorted historical facts to impress upon her and her colleagues that Buddhism, Daoism and Islam were “indigenous” and therefore safe. The teacher noted that Islam, having come from the Middle East, could hardly be regarded as indigenous to China, and that Buddhism originally came from India but later took on Chinese characteristics.

By contrast, the officials told the teachers that Protestantism and Roman Catholicism were foreign and hence potentially “subversive.” Party members warned participants to be on guard against these faiths.

China’s leaders have warned that 2009 will be marked by increased unrest and demonstrations as public anger mounts against increasing unemployment and corruption. Also disconcerting to the government is Charter 08, an online pro-democracy initiative launched in mid-December and signed by an increasing number of Chinese Netizens. It calls for an end to the one-party system, an independent court and freedom of speech. Many of the original signatories were well-known pro-democracy lawyers and intellectuals, but the list now includes computer technicians, construction workers and farmers.

In response to these signs and portents of unrest, the government has begun to increase political and social control. Christian leaders told Compass they did not feel a huge crackdown was necessarily imminent, but they said the overall political climate had become more tense and that this would almost certainly affect unregistered house church Christians.

House church leaders in Beijing told Compass that conditions now seemed even “tighter” than in the period leading up to the Olympic Games last August. In previous years Christians rented halls and conference rooms for large-scale Christmas events, but last year’s Christmas celebrations were deliberately low-key.

A house church leader in a major northeastern city confirmed this general sense of caution. He added that he had seen an internal document leaked from the local Religious Affairs Bureau, dated in early January, which warned against “subversion” by supposedly hostile Christian forces from overseas.

The leaders were generally optimistic about the continuing work and growth of the church, with one Beijing pastor claiming more than 1,000 new converts were baptized last year in his group alone.


Mixed Signals

Chinese officials last November had initiated talks with Protestant house church Christians, raising hopes for greater freedom.

Meetings organized partly by the China State Council’s Research and Development Center brought together academics and lawyers, many of them house church members, and a delegation of six Protestant house church leaders from Beijing, Henan and Wenzhou. As the Times of London reported in January, however, no Catholic representatives were invited; the Communist Party remains in a political standoff with the Vatican. (See Compass Direct News, “Officials Reach Out to House Churches; Raids, Arrests Continue,” Dec. 9, 2008.)

At the time, church leaders involved in the discussions were cautiously optimistic. Pastor Ezra Jin of Beijing’s Zion Church told the Times, “The government … has understood that the Protestant church is not an opposition force but a force for stability and harmony.” He added that the government wanted to evaluate whether house churches posed a threat to the regime and to ask why they rejected the leadership of the Three Self Patriotic Movement, an official body appointed to oversee Protestant churches.

Despite these talks, house church raids and arrests have continued. On Jan. 16, Public Security Bureau officers forcibly removed pastor Zhang Mingxuan from fellow pastor Hua Huiqi’s house in Beijing and put him on a bus to Henan province, warning him not to return, the China Aid Association (CAA) reported.

Zhang had gone to visit Hua’s ailing father, Hua Zaichen. For years the elderly Hua and his wife, Shuang Shuying, have suffered harassment for their work with the unofficial church. Authorities have now denied Shuang, currently serving a two-year prison sentence, permission to visit her dying husband.

On Jan. 2, police raided a house church meeting in Urumqi, Xinjiang province, detaining 50 people. Later that day, 48 of them were released without charge; another was released after paying a 500 yuan (US$73) fine, and the last was sentenced to 10 days of administrative detention, according to CAA.

On Dec. 3, 2008, members of the Taikang County Domestic Defense Protection Squad burst into a private home in Chuanhui district, Zhoukou municipality, Henan, and arrested 50 Christians gathered there, CAA reported. About 20 of the detainees were sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention while leaders Tang Houyong, Shu Wenxiang and Xie Zhenqi were sentenced to one year of labor and re-education.

Some house church Christians have become more vocal in their calls for justice and religious liberty. For example, following the district court’s dismissal of a lawsuit on behalf of Tang Houyong and his companions, Tang’s wife filed a motion to dismiss the Chief Justice of the court for violating legal procedures.

With the specter of serious political and social unrest looming before officials in the face of China’s economic recession, such Christian protests could add to the government’s unease over the growing number and influence of house church Christians.

Report from Compass Direct News


House churches asked not to meet during Games; new crackdown planned for October.

DUBLIN, August 20 (Compass Direct News) – As the Olympics draw to a close, new evidence of religious freedom abuses offers a stark contrast to China’s efforts to provide religious services for athletes and visitors during the Games.

China hired religious clerics to provide these services and published a special bilingual edition of the Bible for distribution to athletes and official churches during the event. Simultaneously, officials asked house church leaders in Beijing to sign documents agreeing not to hold services during the Games, the China Aid Association (CAA) reported on August 13.

More ominously, China has planned a new crackdown on four “troublesome elements,” including house church leaders, for October, when most Olympic athletes, tourists and journalists will have left the country, CAA reported on Monday (August 18).


Positive Steps

A British-based Christian charity, the Bible Society, provided funding for a special bilingual Olympic edition of 30,000 full Bibles and 10,000 New Testaments for distribution in the Olympic Village and to registered churches in the Olympic cities, the Catholic News Agency reported in June. The Amity Printing Press, China’s only government-approved Bible publisher, printed the books in a new multimillion dollar facility that opened in Nanjing in May.

The Chinese government claims that Amity produces more than enough Bibles to meet the needs of the Chinese church, a claim many religious freedom organizations dispute. Amity also prints Bibles for export internationally.

A report circulating before the Games declared that China had banned Bibles from the Olympic Village, but this report proved false.

Officials also hired religious clerics from the five government-approved faiths to provide services for athletes and tourists during the Games. The five groups are Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, Protestants and Catholics; each one answers to a specific religious institution appointed to oversee their activities.


Restrictions in Place

In the lead-up to the Games, officials asked a number of house church pastors to sign a document agreeing to forego any activities at “Christian gathering sites” or meeting points while the Games took place, according to CAA.

Under this agreement, house churches were banned from gathering from July 15 to October 15, a total of 17 weeks. Those who broke the agreement would face “disciplinary action.”

The agreement asked that house churches “refrain from organizing and joining illegal gatherings and refrain from receiving donations, sermons and preaching from overseas religious organizations and groups that have a purpose.”

The Union of Catholic Asian News confirmed in a report on August 7 that officials had forbidden bishops and priests in unregistered Catholic churches to administer sacraments or do pastoral work during the Games.

Officials placed several underground bishops under house arrest and forbade them to contact their priests, the report added.

In Wuqiu village of Jinxian county, Hebei, police erected a small “house” in front of the cathedral presided over by underground Bishop Julius Jia Zhiguo in order to provide a facility for 24-hour monitoring of the bishop.

Additionally, Bishop Joseph Wei Jingyi of Qiqihar in northeast China received phone calls from government officials asking if he planned to hold any religious gatherings during the Olympics. Wei said he would stay at home and pray for the success of the Games.

Prior to the Games, police banned several Christians from meeting with visiting U.S. government officials and asked others to leave Beijing for the duration of the event.

Police in July repeatedly asked house church pastor Zhang Mingxuan and his wife Xie Fenlang to leave Beijing. When they refused, police on July 18 entered a guesthouse where they were staying and drove them to Yanjiao in neighboring Hebei province.

When Zhang granted an interview to BBC journalist John Simpson, police detained Zhang and Xie before the interview could take place. (See Compass Direct News, “Chinese House Church Pastor Detained,” August 7.)

On August 10, police seized house church pastor and activist Hua Huiqi when he attempted to participate in a service at the government-approved Juanjie Protestant church in Beijing, where U.S. President George Bush was scheduled to appear.

Hua, still in hiding, wrote a letter to Bush later that day, pleading for prayer for his personal safety and for freedom of belief for all Chinese people. (See Compass Direct News, “Chinese Christians Plead for Relief as Olympics Continue,” August 13.)


October Crackdown

More prayer may be requested in coming months. China’s Communist Party (CPC) will launch a nationwide crackdown on four “unstable social elements” in October, CAA reported on Monday (August 18).

These elements were listed as illegal Christian house church leaders, petitioners, human rights defenders and political dissidents.

Outlined in a secret government directive passed to CAA, the crackdown is designed to coincide with a new campaign for “20 more years of political and social stability” in China.

In a speech on June 16, Zhou Yongkang, head of the Political and Legal Committee of the Central Committee of the CPC, called for “extraordinary measures” to be taken against these elements in order to protect the CPC’s continuous rule and reform programs.

The Beijing Municipal State Security Bureau has also begun a new citizen informant initiative, requiring ordinary citizens to report individuals and organizations posing a threat to national security, including those who “engage in activities that endanger state security by utilizing religions,” according to CAA.

Report from Compass Direct News


Hua Huiqi writes to President Bush; seminary staff to face trial after Games

DUBLIN, August 13 (Compass Direct News) – Christian activist and house church pastor Hua Huiqi wrote an open letter to U.S. President George Bush on Sunday (August 10), asking for prayer for his personal safety and for freedom of belief for all Chinese people.

Earlier that day, plainclothes policemen detained Hua to prevent him participating in a service at the government-approved Kuanjie Protestant church in Beijing, where Bush was scheduled to attend.

Hua slipped away from police officers when they fell asleep; at press time he was still in hiding.

Several other Christians also remain in detention or under house arrest as the Games continue this week.

In Hua’s letter, published by the China Aid Association (CAA), he thanked Bush for his “concern for the Chinese house churches” and expressed disappointment at not being able to attend the Sunday service. He also described his detention, saying that seven or eight policemen had kicked and punched him before seizing him and his brother, Hua Huilin.

“At the place where they detained us, they conducted an interrogation,” Hua wrote. “They threatened me: ‘We simply won’t allow you to go to Kuanjie Church today. If you say you will go there again, we will break your legs.’”

Hua managed to escape but was fearful of the consequences. “Now I’m wandering outside and dare not go back home,” he wrote. “I am writing this letter to implore you to pray for my personal safety and for the freedom of belief of us Chinese people.”


‘Dangerous Religious Element’

Also in Beijing, Christian bookstore owner Shi Weihan remains in custody at the Beijing Municipal Detention Center.

Police initially arrested Shi on November 28, 2007, charging him with “illegal business practices” after he allegedly published Christian literature without authorization for distribution to house churches; but court officials ordered his release on January 4, citing insufficient evidence. Police, who have labeled Shi a “dangerous religious element,” arrested him again on March 19.

Prison authorities have prevented family members from visiting Shi or bringing food and clothing to the detention center. Shi’s lawyer, permitted to visit just once in recent weeks, confirmed that Shi’s health was deteriorating and he was in need of urgent medical attention, according to CAA.

USA Today reported on Monday (August 11) that Shi’s wife, Zhang Jing, said, “It is good that the president can worship here, but it’s not likely that we will have more freedom or be able to register our churches.”

Authorities forced Shi’s Antioch Eternal Life Church to close in June.

“Several house churches have been closed before the Olympics,” Zhang added. “The police say we are threatening national security and demand that my husband give up his faith.”

In the same report, Dennis Wilder, U. S. National Security Council’s director for Asian Affairs, said after a meeting between Bush and President Hu Jintao on Sunday (August 10) that, “Hu seemed to indicate that the door is opening on religious freedom in China and that in the future there will be more room for religious believers.”


Seminary Staff Detained

Elsewhere, in Shandong province, two staff members from a house church seminary in Weifang city await trial for running an “illegal business operation” after they attempted to purchase Bibles from Amity Press, China’s official Bible printing facility.

Police briefly detained teacher Jin Xiuxiang on May 20, before asking her to return home. On May 29, police and officials from the State Administration of Religious Affairs raided the seminary, arresting Jin and another teacher, Zhang Yage, along with Principal Lu Zhaojun, for “running a school without a license.” They also seized seminary property, including Bibles and other Christian literature, a minivan and a bank card, according to CAA.

All three were released on May 28, after CAA reported the raid. When Lu and Jin returned to the police station on June 2 to inquire about confiscated goods, however, officials detained them again and sentenced them to one month of criminal detention for carrying out an “illegal business operation.” The goods were not returned.

Authorities then released Lu and Jin on bail on July 12, informing them that they would face trial after the Games. Compass sources yesterday confirmed that Lu and Jin are under close surveillance.

House church pastor Zhang Mingxuan and his wife Xie Fenglan, detained last week after they agreed to an interview with a BBC journalist, are still in police custody, according to Compass sources.

Police had repeatedly asked Zhang and Xie to leave Beijing for the duration of the Games and eventually expelled them from their apartment. Finally, on July 18 police forcibly took them from a guesthouse in Beijing and drove them to Yanjiao in neighboring Hebei province. The couple then moved to a more remote town to await the completion of the Games, CAA reported.

Report from Compass Direct News


House church leader Hua Huiqi hoped to attend service with President Bush.

DUBLIN, August 11 (Compass Direct News) – Security agents yesterday seized Christian activist and house church pastor Hua Huiqi on his way to a service at the government-approved Kuanjie Protestant Church in Beijing, where U.S. President George Bush was scheduled to appear.

Bush later attended the service before meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao to discuss human rights concerns, including religious freedom.

“I told him not to go because it’s during the Olympic Games, and this period is sensitive,” Hua’s brother Hua Huilin told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. AP reporters said the line was disconnected three times during the conversation, suggesting that authorities were monitoring the phone call.

When Hua insisted on going, however, his brother agreed to travel with him.

As the men cycled towards the church, two black cars approached them. Police seized both men and took them away in separate cars, detaining them in the courtyard of the Hong Kong New World Development Ltd. Co., according to the China Aid Association (CAA). But around noon, police guards relaxed for a moment and activist Hua managed to escape. Police released his brother later that afternoon.

According to the AP report, authorities have arrested and beaten Hua several times in recent years because of his religious activities. Hua also gained a reputation as an activist when he fought against a development project that led to the demolition of his home in 2001.

Hua was baptized at the Kuanjie church 10 years ago but has since been a member of a Beijing house church.

In recent months, as part of a “clean-up” operation in Beijing, authorities forced him to attend services at the Kuanjie church instead. The church is registered with China’s Three Self Patriotic Movement, a government body assigned to oversee Protestant churches throughout the country.

Since registration places strict controls on the appointment of clergy, sermon content and evangelism, many Chinese believers – such as Hua – prefer to worship in unregistered house churches.

As the Games drew closer and Bush was scheduled to attend a service at the Kuanjie church, authorities banned Hua and his family from attending.

According to CAA, most people present at the church on Sunday were “security people, political workers and people trained … to pose as believers.” One church member who spoke to CAA complained, “No one is allowed to enter the church.”


Bush on Freedom Concerns

At a press conference in Bangkok, Thailand just prior to his arrival in Beijing, Bush declared that, “America stands in firm opposition to China’s detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists,” The Australian reported on Friday (August 8).

He added, “Ultimately, only China can decide what course it will follow.”

After attending the service at Kuanjie, Bush posed for photos on the front steps of the church and told reporters that no country should “fear the influence” of religious freedom, AP reported.

Bush later met with Chinese president Hu Jintao and voiced his concerns about human rights issues, including the jailing of religious activists.

Report from Compass Direct News


Latest incident in crackdown meant to keep him from meeting with foreign officials.

DUBLIN, August 5 (Compass Direct News) – As U.S. President George W. Bush attends Olympic events in Beijing this week and a church service in the capital next Sunday, Chinese authorities have banished house church pastor Zhang Mingxuan from the city for the duration of the Games. Several other Christians remain in detention or face ongoing harassment.

Plainclothes police officers forcibly removed Zhang and his wife Xie Fenglan from a guesthouse in Beijing on July 18 and took them toYanjiao, Hebei province, to prevent them from meeting foreign officials visiting Beijing for the Games, according to Friday’s (August 1) South China Morning Post (SCMP).

The couple had moved from one guesthouse to another at least six times prior to the raid to escape police harassment. They have since moved from Yanjiao to another remote town in Hebei to await the completion of the Games.

Zhang told reporters that constant police crackdowns had reduced the number of house churches he has established over the past decade from more than 10 to just three.

Thousands of Christians throughout China belong to similar house churches, which have refused to register with official government agencies in order to avoid legal restrictions on the size of their gatherings, appointment of clergy and sermon content.


History of Arrests

Zhang, a Christian for 22 years, traveled as an itinerant evangelist throughout China before moving to Beijing in 1998. He is co-founder and president of the China House Church Alliance, established in April 2005 to defend the rights of house church Christians.

In 2005, President Bush invited Zhang to a meeting during an official visit to China. The meeting never took place, however, as officials detained Zhang before he could attend.

In June Zhang met with U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf and Rep. Christopher Smith during a visit to Beijing, but officials placed him under house arrest the following night, according to SCMP. Also in June, officials detained Zhang when he attempted to meet with Bastiann Belder, a rapporteur of the European Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs.

When police tried to persuade Zhang and his ailing wife to leave Beijing prior to the Games, Zhang refused.

“A police officer even suggested paying us 5,000 yuan [US$730] if we would leave Beijing for three months,” Zhang told reporters. “We’ve been praying for a successful Olympic Games for eight years. We didn’t do anything wrong, so why are they doing this to us?”

Officials are perhaps aggravated by the activities of the China House Church Alliance, backed by a team of Christian lawyers who file cases against local authorities when Christians are jailed or sent to labor camps. To date some 30 cases have been filed, and six have been successful, Zhang said. Prior to the formation of the alliance, Christians rarely took such cases to court.

One of the lawyers, Li Baiguang, said it was extremely difficult to win such cases, but that when they ended at least officials stopped harassing these Christians.

Baiguang was scheduled to meet with members of the U.S. Congress in Beijing in June, but officials detained him and one other lawyer to prevent them from attending the meeting. Several other lawyers were warned not to attend or they would face severe consequences.


Bookstore Owner’s Health Worsens

Christian bookstore owner Shi Weihan, detained without charges by authorities on March 19, has suffered a rapid deterioration in health. In addition, officials have reportedly convinced Shi to sign a “confession” convicting him of engaging in the printing and distribution of a large number of illegal publications.

China Aid Association (CAA) reported on Thursday (July 31) that Shi’s weight had dropped by more than 10 kilograms (22 pounds). Shi suffers from diabetes, a condition exacerbated by a poor diet and restricted access to appropriate medication.

Shi’s bookstore continues to operate in its prime location near the Olympic Village, according to Compass sources.

The bookstore is registered with authorities, and Shi had permission to sell Bibles and other Christian materials. Officials objected, however, when Shi printed some Bibles and Christian literature without authorization for distribution to local house churches, according to Asia Times Online.

Despite a law restricting detention without charges to a maximum of two months, officials in June stated they would delay action on the case indefinitely. By late June, they had granted only one visit by Shi’s lawyer, Zhang Xingshui.


Elsewhere in China

Officials also evicted Christian rights activist Hua Huiqi from his home in Beijing on July 2. After using a heavy hammer to break down the doors and locks of his apartment, they beat Hua’s brother and forced the entire family, including Hua’s 90-year-old father, onto the street with their furniture, CAA reported.

On July 6, officials moved Pastor Zhang Zhongxin of Jiaxiang county, Shandong province to a labor camp to begin two years of re-education through labor. With the help of a lawyer, Zhang’s wife Wang Guiyun has since submitted an appeal to the Jining City district court asking it to withdraw the labor camp sentence, CAA reported last month.

On July 14, police raided the home of Lu Xiaoai, a fellow church member of Zhang and Wang, seizing Bibles and Christian materials. They also investigated church member Lian Dehai, seizing Christian material from his home and placing him in criminal detention.

Police then proceeded to carry out several other raids on the homes of house church members in Jiaxiang county.

CAA reported on other incidents in Beijing municipality, Gansu and Henan provinces during June and July.

At Olympic venues however, China has presented a different face, with clergy from the five accepted religious groups providing official religious services to athletes and other visitors. The Chinese Olympic committee has granted athletes permission to bring personal religious articles into the Olympic village and permission for well-known evangelist Luis Palau to distribute his evangelistic book, “A Friendly Dialogue Between an Atheist and a Christian,” to athletes and coaches during the Games.

In June, Chinese authorities announced they would print 50,000 gospel booklets – including 10,000 Chinese-English complete Bibles – for distribution during the Games.

In July, the state newspaper Xinhua published a visitors’ guide to churches in Beijing. The article gave a brief history of the Catholic and Protestant streams of Christianity but made only a brief mention of four Catholic churches in the capital.

Xinhua also noted that “since the Chinese constitution was amended in 1982 to allow freedom of religion,” the number of Christians in China had “surpassed 16 million,” an official figure given by the China Christian Council, an agency representing government-approved Protestant churches.

Compass sources, however, estimate there are at least 60 million evangelical Christians in China: 10 million in major house church networks, 35 million in independent rural house churches and 15 million in independent urban house churches. In addition, there are 15 million Catholics and 15 million members of the official Three-Self Patriotic Movement church.

Report from Compass Direct News