TSPM offers Bibles and “assistance,” but rights groups say efforts fall short.

DUBLIN, December 9 (Compass Direct News) – In recent months Chinese officials have attempted to build bridges with the Protestant house church movement even as police raided more unregistered congregations, arrested Christian leaders and forced at least 400 college students to swear they would stop attending such worship services.

With rights groups saying more effort is needed to address rights abuses and secure full religious freedom for Chinese Christians, two research institutes – one from the government – organized an unprecedented symposium on Nov. 21-22 that concluded with an agreement for house church leaders to begin a dialogue with government officials.

A delegation of six house church leaders from Beijing, Henan and Wenzhou provinces attended the seminar, entitled, “Christianity and Social Harmony: A Seminar on the Issue of Chinese House Churches,” along with scholars and experts from universities and independent research facilities. Members of the Minorities Development Research Institute, a branch of the China State Council’s Research and Development Centre, and the Beijing Pacific Solutions Social Science Research Institute co-hosted it.

In a report summarizing the forum, Beijing house church representative Liu Tong Su said that China’s religious institutions and regulations were clearly outdated and inadequate to meet the needs of the church.

At the conclusion of the meeting, house church delegates agreed to dialogue with the government, Liu said, though he insisted, “Only God can control the spirituality of faith. No worldly authorities have the right to control a man’s spirit.”

The government has been entrusted by God with the authority to maintain external public order, Liu added.

“If the government can limit its governing territory to areas of maintaining public order in external conduct, then according to the teachings of the Bible, the house church will definitely obey those in authority within the boundary that God has set,” he said.

Experts presented reports on the rapid development of house church networks, including the number of Christians, geographical distribution, cultural and ethnic make-up and connection with foreign Christians, according to the Gospel Herald.

A month earlier, the chairman of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) – responsible along with the China Christian Council (CCC) for overseeing China’s Protestant churches – told a gathering of 200 Hong Kong church leaders of his desire to assist Chinese house churches and provide them with Bibles, according to Ecumenical News International (ENI).

At the Oct. 22 conference entitled, “Chinese Church – New Leaders, New Challenges,” TSPM Chairman Fu Xianwei declared, “For those house churches without registration, we will try our best to be with them, to recognize them and to help them, so long as they have an orthodox faith, don’t stray from the truth and don’t follow heretics.”

Fu and 11 other members of the newly-elected leadership team of the CCC/TSPM also said they were willing to provide house churches with Bibles, ENI reported.

Bible distribution is largely the responsibility of Amity Press, China’s only official Bible printing company, which recently announced its intention to place more Bibles in the hands of rural Christians. Daniel Willis, CEO of the Bible Society in New South Wales (NSW), Australia, launched an appeal on Nov. 12 to support Amity in this goal.

Speaking at the launch, Willis asserted, “Smuggling Bibles into China places Chinese Christians at risk, and now with the new Amity Press operational in Nanjing, smuggling is a waste of resources.”

Amity opened a new multimillion dollar printing facility in May with a capacity to print 12 million Bibles per year. Most of those Bibles are printed in foreign languages for export outside China.

“China is experiencing a great freedom of worship,” Willis added. “With this wonderful change the church is spreading rapidly … Each Chinese Christian would like to experience the joy … that owning their own Bible brings – but unfortunately for many, obtaining a Bible is difficult and often out of their reach financially.”

The China Aid Association (CAA) issued a statement on Nov. 20 that Amity did not produce enough Bibles to meet the vast needs of the church in China or to replace lost or worn copies. It also pointed out that distribution was still strictly limited to government-approved channels.

Earlier this year, the Rev. Dr. Chow Lien-Hwa, vice-chairman of the board of Amity Press, stated in an interview with the NSW Bible Society that Amity was printing 3 million Bibles per year for mainland China. Chow also outlined a plan to allow Bible distribution through a chain of government bookshops and claimed that house church Christians could buy Bibles from TSPM churches without having to provide personal identity information.

Pastors from both house churches and official TSPM congregations have reported to Compass a shortage of Bibles and other Christian materials in Beijing, the northwest, the northeast, and the southwest. Church growth in tribal areas also has created an urgent need for Bibles in minority languages.


Raids, Arrests Continue

Rights groups pointed to recent raids and arrests, however, as confirmation that Chinese authorities still restrict freedom of worship for local house church Christians.

Police raided a house church gathering in Tai Kang county, Henan province on Dec. 3 and arrested all 50 Christians, CAA reported on Thursday (Dec. 4). Public Security Bureau officers also raided another gathering of 50 house church believers in Xiji town, Zaozhuang city, Shandong province on Dec. 2, arresting 20 Christian leaders and demanding a fine of 2,500 yuan (US$365) per person to secure their release.

CAA also confirmed that police carried out multiple raids on house church gatherings in Beijing and in areas near college campuses in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, from late September to early November, detaining leaders of the Local Church house church network. Four leaders in Zhejiang were sentenced to labor camp for 12 to 18 months.

Officers also arrested at least 400 Christian college students. After intense questioning, police forced each student to write a statement of repentance agreeing to forsake such gatherings.

Commenting on reports of persecution in China, Chow of Amity Press claimed victims were not true Chinese citizens, but Chinese with foreign citizenship who had entered China to carry out illegal activities.

“When we go to another country we must be law-abiding citizens of that country,” Chow insisted. “The law, whether you like it or not, says you can only preach in the churches, you cannot go on the street.”

Some house churches are actively seeking registration with authorities to avoid arrests and inconveniences, ENI reported in October. Such groups, however, prefer to register outside the CCC/TSPM structure, disagreeing that different Protestant beliefs can be reconciled under the TSPM as a self-described “post-denominational” umbrella organization.

House church members also object to the TSPM’s interference in congregational practices, according toe the U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report 2008. The report notes that many unregistered evangelical Protestant groups refuse to register with TSPM due to theological differences, fear of adverse consequences if they reveal names and addresses of church leaders or members, or fear that it will control sermon content.


Released from Prison

Responding to international pressure, officials on Dec. 2 released house church pastor Zhu Baoguo of Henan province, citing medical reasons. Authorities had raided a house church gathering on Oct. 12, arresting Zhu and four other leaders, before sentencing Zhu on Oct. 30 to one year in labor camp, CAA reported.

Officials also released house church pastor Wang Weiliang from prison on Nov. 25 for medical reasons, according to CAA. Authorities sentenced Wang to three years in prison in December 2006 for protesting the July 2006 destruction of Dangshanwan Christian church in Xiaoshan, Zhejiang province. Seven other believers were arrested at the time; authorities have released all but one, who remains in detention in Hangzhou.


A Breakthrough for China’s House Churches?

At last month’s symposium on Chinese house churches, officials from government research organs, scholars from government think-tanks and universities, independent researchers and an unprecedented delegation of six house church leaders from Beijing, Henan and Wenzhou attended.

At the groundbreaking conference, sponsored by the Minorities Development Research Institute of the China State Council’s Research and Development Center and the Beijing Pacific Solutions Social Science Research Institute and entitled, “Christianity and Social Harmony: A Seminar on the Issue of the Chinese House Churches,” participants discussed every aspect of the house church movement in China.

Statistics were a key issue, with most agreeing that the number of house church members was vast and rapidly increasing. Estimates ranged from 50 million to 100 million members of Protestant house churches, as compared with approximately 20 million members of registered Protestant churches.

Delegates were surprisingly bold in their discussion and criticism of China’s religious policy, and several put forward practical plans for the abolition of institutions such as the State Administration for Religious Affairs (formerly the Religious Affairs Bureau) and the Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement.

They also called for serious and ongoing discussions between the government and house churches, and Christian leaders called for the lifting of a ban on house churches and a review of restrictions on church registration and appointment of pastors.

Many participants agreed that the democratic management of house churches in accordance with the rule of law was a logical step to bring religious policies into line with China’s open-door economic policies.

While certain sectors of leadership may welcome these suggestions, others entrenched in the atheist system of the Communist Party were expected to balk at such reforms.  

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


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