Unshaken by threats of eviction and even jail, Shouwang Church members worship when and where they can
Verna Yu May 08, 2011 South China Morning Post
To most people, being detained at a police station for 48 hours would be a terrifying experience.
But not to Hue.
“I was a little bit scared at first, but I trusted we were in the care of almighty God,” said the young finance executive, who spent his Easter weekend in custody. “I went with a peaceful heart.”
Hue, who declined to disclose his full name for fear of reprisals, is one of hundreds of Christians from the Beijing-based Shouwang Church who have been risking detention, losing their jobs or being evicted by their landlords by defying government orders not to worship outdoors over the past month.
The 1,000-strong congregation of Shouwang – technically an illegal church because it is not approved by the state – has been trying to hold its Sunday services at a public plaza after official pressure forced its previous landlord to evict it from its usual place of worship last month. Officials also blocked the congregation from moving into a 1,500-square-metre office space the church had bought for 27 million yuan (HK$32 million).
Before Hue went out on Easter Sunday, he already knew he could be detained, because police had held dozens of his fellow church members on the past two Sundays. But he was undeterred.
“We just need somewhere to worship our Lord. We don’t want to get involved with politics, but we have nowhere to worship, so we don’t have a choice.”
Police detained 169 worshippers the first Sunday, then nearly 50 the second week and more than 30 in each of the past two Sundays. The church will attempt to hold another outdoor service again today.
Some Christians have been detained two or three times, although many who have been in custody once have been stopped by police from leaving home on subsequent weekends. The six leaders of the church have been confined to their homes for weeks.
Last week, Hue, like many fellow Shouwang Christians who have been detained, had to move because the authorities pressured his landlord to evict him. He is lucky that he does not work in the state sector – many members who do are facing dismissal from their jobs.
Academics say the high-profile confrontation between Shouwang and the government is unprecedented in recent mainland church history and poses one of the most serious tests of church-state relations in years.
Shouwang, which means “to keep watch”, had several run-ins with the government over the past few years, but its congregation continued to grow. In 2008, police raided one of its services, accusing it of illegal gathering; in 2009, it was evicted from its rented premises and worshipped in a park while its pastor was detained; last year, church leaders and members were turned back from the airport when they tried to travel to South Africa to participate in the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelisation. The authorities were angered that members of the unofficial churches sought to represent China.
Although the Christians’ attempts to worship outdoors are seen by some as a bold public display of defiance, they insist they have no political agenda. They say they have no choice but to take to public spaces unless the authorities allow them to move into a permanent place of worship.
After the church was similarly forced to worship outdoors in November 2009, officials gave verbal approval for it to go back indoors in another rented space, but a little more than a year later, it was told to leave again.
The Reverend Jin Tianming , the pastor of the church, has said it has been forced to move more than 20 times since it was founded in 1993. Now, it is no longer willing to be made homeless every few months and wants the authorities to give it formal approval to worship freely in its own property without further harassment.
“This is a manifestation of our faith … Jesus Christ is the head of the church, and the government cannot interfere with the church’s faith,” Jin said of the church’s attempt to worship outdoors in an earlier phone interview. Jin, who has been under house arrest since April 9, could not be reached by phone during the past week.
Not a typical “house” church – small groups of Christians on the mainland holding clandestine services at home to escape persecution – Shouwang’s fast-growing and dynamic congregation has long posed a headache for the central government, which bans religious services outside state-sanctioned churches.
Attended by a well-to-do and educated crowd – among them university lecturers, doctors, lawyers, NGO workers and even Communist Party members – Shouwang has come to symbolise a new breed of young urban Christians who are no longer contented to practise their faith in secret.
It resembles many thriving evangelical churches overseas. Led by a committee chosen by its members, the dynamic church has a choir, a Sunday school, Bible classes and charity initiatives. It even has its own magazine and a sophisticated website with video clips of sermons. Before it was evicted, it ran three services every Sunday.
Religious-affairs experts say that while the authorities have largely tolerated small gatherings of the unregistered churches, Shouwang’s speed of growth, its influence and its development into an independent organisation have unnerved them. They do not tolerate independent groups outside the control of the Communist Party, but Shouwang has developed into just that.
From what began in 1993 as a gathering of fewer then 10 Christians worshipping in the one-bedroom flat of Jin, then a recent chemical-engineering graduate from prestigious Tsinghua University, the number of worshippers grew to about 300 in 2005, 600 in 2008 and about 1,000 now.
Religious-affairs experts say the clash between Shouwang and the authorities has come to symbolise the strained underground church-state relations on the mainland, which stems from the government’s outdated religious policies and its failure to recognise that state-sanctioned churches can no longer serve the needs of a fast-growing Christian population.
The number of Christians on the mainland has grown dramatically in recent decades, from about 2 million 30 years ago to the current estimated 23 million (official figure released last year) to 130 million.
Liu Peng, a Beijing-based academic who studies church-state relations, estimates that about 50 million mainlanders are underground church members. Instead of suppressing them, he said the government should grant their churches legal status and allow them to worship freely.
He said the central government’s model of the management of churches was simply outdated and its desire to have all Christians worship in state-sanctioned churches unrealistic.
“The growth in the number of Christians has outpaced the growth of the number of [approved] churches,” he said. “It’s like a child outgrowing his clothes. If there is no reform, there will only be more problems.”
All religious bodies on the mainland are required to register with the government – a de facto authorisation procedure that weeds out all independent groups outside the control of the party. Shouwang has repeatedly tried to register with the authorities since 2006 but was always refused.
House churches took root soon after the Communist regime took over the mainland in 1949, when churches and religious establishments were forced to sever ties with Western churches, then seen as agents of “foreign imperialists”.
Those who refused to come under the control of the state-sanctioned church in the so-called “Three-Self Patriotic Movement” in 1954 were driven underground and many church leaders were jailed.
Unregistered churches have come a long way since then, and many urban churches have become oases for young professionals who seek spiritual solace and moral guidance in an increasingly materialistic society – and they flourish as a result.
But despite continuous calls for the government to recognise these unofficial churches, there is no sign that it is prepared to shift its position any time soon.
The State Administration for Religious Affairs announced in January that its priority this year was to “guide Protestants at unregistered churches into worshipping at government-sanctioned ones”, according to Xinhua.
Other fast-developing evangelical churches on the mainland have also been targets of similar crackdowns in the past couple of years. The Wanbang Church in Shanghai, Liangren Church in Guangzhou, and Qiuyuzhifu Church in Chengdu have all been evicted from their rented premises and have had to move from place to place, although none have been cracked down on as heavily as Shouwang.
But Christians who worship at unofficial churches are adamant that they will not join state-sanctioned churches, because they say they could not practice their faith freely in institutions controlled by the atheist Communist Party.
“The Three-Self church is not established on the foundation of faith. Things like who gets to preach and what is said in the sermon are controlled by the government,” Hue said. “But the Bible says, `Besides me there is no God,’ so I can’t participate in that kind of church.”
The persecution of Shouwang comes amid the mainland’s harshest crackdown on dissent for years, prompted by government fears that revolts in the Arab world could spread to China. Dozens of dissidents and rights advocates have been detained or are facing charges.
Under such a tense political atmosphere, analysts fears the central government might run out of patience and launch an all-out crackdown to end the long-drawn-out confrontation.
“My rather pessimistic view is that the government will not allow this to drag on,” said Professor Ying Fuk-tsang, a divinity scholar at Chinese University of Hong Kong. “In the worst scenario it might ban this church as an illegal organisation and arrest its leaders.”
But Shouwang’s church leaders and members say they are not afraid to go to jail. “There is such a possibility and we were mentally prepared for it right from the start. There is no turning back,” said church elder Sun Yi, who is still under house arrest.
“But … we’re still hoping to reach a consensus that we can both accept and genuinely solve the problem.”
Both sides have taken firm stances: the church refuses to disband or split into smaller groups and demands that the government allows it to take possession of its property; the government insists that Christians were taking part in illegal gatherings.
“Both sides have a very clear bottom line, so conflict is inevitable,” said a mainland-based academic who researches house-church issues. “They have no common language – the church has its own set of logic and the government has its own set of logic. The government believes that whoever goes out on the street poses a threat to the government, and the church believes that whatever happens, they must carry on worshipping.”
The long battle will hurt the church badly anyway, even if the authorities do not step up the crackdown, scholars say. The church will start losing its followers as those who do not wish to risk detention choose to worship elsewhere.
“We will definitely lose some people … but I think Shouwang has a fundamental vision [of worshipping together], and through this test, people who are committed to that vision will stay,”
Sun said. “This is the most difficult test in the history of Shouwang. If we don’t handle this well, the church might split into smaller groups.”
The Shanghai-based Wanbang church, which had 1,000 followers, split into several groups after being evicted from its rented premises in 2009. Its pastor said it had lost several hundred congregation members.
But government efforts to suppress the church might prove counter-productive, as they seemed to have only bolstered the Christians’ beliefs. Shouwang’s faithful believe God may have his purpose in this persecution: to spread the gospel to officials and police.
The church said in an online message: “We thank God for giving the church an opportunity, to enable the police to feel a sense of peace and freedom from Christ through these Christians.”
In their testimonies posted on the internet, church members described heart-warming scenes of praying and singing hymns together in custody without hindrance and being filled with a sense of peace and joy. Some said they discussed their faith with police, some of whom were genuinely interested in Christianity.
“We have to give thanks that we were able to share our faith with the police … some had never heard of the gospel, and some were pretty interested, too,” Hue said.
An official at the State Administration for Religious Affairs refused to comment on questions related to Shouwang Church.
Test of faith
Unshaken by threats of eviction and even jail, Shouwang Church members worship when and where they can