VOA: Henan Court to re-try “Pingdingshan Religious Case”

China Aid Association

Lawyer Zhang Kai

Washington, D.C. (Sept. 25, 2013)—The news that the Intermediate Court of Pingdingshan in Henan Province will hear the “Pingdingshan Religious Case” in a trial of second instance has aroused the interest of the international community. Earlier, seven believers of “the Shouters” in Ye County, Pingdingshan, were convicted in the trial of first instance of the crime of “using a cult to undermine law enforcement” and were sentenced to prison terms ranging from three years to 7 1/2 years. Yawei, a reporter from the Voice of America, analyzes in the following report the importance of this case from the legal and religious perspectives.

The lawyers who will serve as defense counsels for the seven believers from [the group commonly referred to as] “the Shouters” recently received notices sent by the Pingdingshan Municipal Intermediate People’s Court to appear in court on Sept. 27 to represent the defendants. One of the salient features of the defense counsels in this trial of second instance is that most of them are Christians. Thirteen of the 14 defense lawyers reportedly are Christians.

According to reports, on April 14, 2012, the public security agency of Ye County, Pingdingshan Municipality dispatched 100 officers and arrested more than 30 “Shouters” Christians on the grounds that they were [holding] a cult meeting, and ultimately put seven of them—the oldest was 59 years old, the youngest was 23— under criminal detention for the crime of “using a cult to undermine law enforcement,” based on Article 300 of the Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China. The prosecution’s main evidence was literature that they regard as cult propaganda materials, including copies of the Recovery Version of the Bible, that they seized at the meeting site.

In 1983, the Chinese government began to regard “the Shouters” as heretical, and since 1999, it has been on a government list of 14 cults to be banned. The government views “the Shouters” as a cultic branch in China of the “Local Church” led by Witness Lee. Early on, Witness Lee had been one of the leaders of the Christian Assembly Halls in China. He went to Taiwan before the Communists took over mainland China in 1949, and later emigrated to the U.S. He died in 1997. “The Shouters” got their name because they teach believers to shout the name of the Lord during worship services or make other declarations loudly.

Pastor Fu Xiqiu [Bob Fu], head of the American Christian organization “China Aid Association,” said that the “Local Church” was for a time regarded as heretical. Even now, some mainstream Christian organizations in the United States and even mainstream heresy dictionaries still define it as heretical. However, things have begun to change in the past five years.

“The attitudes of some orthodox seminaries, theological organizations and Christian research institutes towards the ‘Local Church’ have undergone obvious change and they have begun to re-evaluate it. Some of them have even admitted that they were wrong, saying that they had been wrong in concluding that they were heretics, and [now] think they are still part of universal orthodox Christianity and ‘Local Church’ believers of the ‘Local Church’ are still part of the mainstream evangelical church that believes in Jesus Christ and his salvation. So, there is no united conclusion.”

However, Pastor Fu Xiqiu mentioned that the “Local Church” and Witness Lee himself have issued public statements saying that the “Local Church” is not “the Shouters” and they denounced the description by the Chinese government of “Shouters” believers shouting “Witness Lee the Lord” in their gatherings and even deifying Witness Lee. However, said Pastor Bob Fu, regardless of which denomination “the Shouters” belongs to, the government should not violate the religious freedom of believers who are holding meetings peacefully.

The verdict in the trial of first instance at the Ye County People’s Court of Henan Province said that the seven defendants had joined the cult “the Shouters,” held illegal meetings and engaged in cult propaganda activities. These acts constituted the crime of using a cult to undermine law enforcement, and sentences of three to 7 1/2 years were meted out in accordance with the severity of the circumstances. Any objection to this verdict can be appealed directly at Pingdingshan Intermediate People’s Court.

Almost all the seven defendants are peasants, and they are currently being detained at Ye County Detention Center. Of the defendants, Han Hai received the longest sentence—7 1/2 years. Han Hai’s wife Xin Jiuni denies that her husband is a cult believer.
“We are all proper Christians. We believe in Christianity, not a cult. We are not guilty of any crimes.”

Han Shan, Han Hai’s son who works elsewhere as a migrant worker, says his parents are dutiful Christians.

“They are all honest and good-natured peasants who make a living by farming and go to these gatherings in their free time. They have never said they were against the Communist Party. I think they are very good and honest people. They do not curse or use dirty language, and they don’t quarrel with their neighbors.”

According to Han Shan, after his father was sentenced in the trial of first instance, the family was allowed to visit him. He appeared to be fine both physically and mentally. Han Shan said that his father insists that his case is about his personal faith only and that there is no question of being anti-Party or anti-China.
Cao Xia, another defendant, was sentenced to a 3-1/2-year prison term in the trial of first instance. Her husband, Lu Mingchen, defended her faith:

“My wife heard that the sermons were very good and that’s why she went to the meetings. When she had time, she went to the meetings. When she didn’t have time, she just worked. She is not a cult believer, and she is not anti-Communist Party.”

Wang Jiajia, Cao Xia’s daughter-in-law, expressed dissatisfaction with the way the Public Security Bureau searched the house when during the arrest. She said: “At the time, several young sisters [Christian women] were living here. After they were all taken away, these police officers began to ransack the house and threw their clothes were all over the floor, took away all their purses. I don’t know how much money was in them.”

Lawyer Zhang Kai from the Beijing Yijia Law Firm has initiated fund-raising and defense work for the trial of second instance. Because he is currently a visiting scholar at Purdue University, he is not participating in the defense for the trial of second instance. However, he has all along been following the developments in the case.

Lawyer Zhang Kai said this about the legal basis for the defense: “We lawyers believe that it doesn’t matter what religious group it is, this is a question of freedom of belief. If a group is involved in in faith matters and has not engaged in any activity that endangers society, then they cannot be convicted and cannot be given criminal penalties. We think Article 300 seriously violates the principle of separation of state and the church.”

Lawyer Zhang Kai pointed out that freedom of belief includes freedom of religion [for followers of] so-called “correct” religions as well as freedom of belief in religions not endorsed by the government authorities. The criminal law can only be used against harmful conduct, it cannot be used against a person’s faith or to convict a person for spreading a certain faith.

Lawyer Zhang Kai also said that the Public Security departments had seriously violated the law in their law enforcement. They have sent out more than 300 letters of complaint about this, but to date have received no reply.

“First they went to arrest people, [and] removed a large sum of money and many items, without giving a receipt for most of what was taken. Where did all this money go? We have reason to believe that the money has been embezzled by Public Security. Secondly, a higher level Public Security department evaluated this case, for instance, [determining] whether these books are part of a cult. This kind of evaluation is intrinsically without legal basis and does not meet procedural requirements. What is considered a cult book needs to be defined. The entire evaluation process was very hasty and careless.”

Lawyer Zhang Kai said the defense lawyers for the trial of second instance have mentioned that all the judicial personnel, including staff, are all atheists, and therefore are not qualified to judge whether a certain religion is good or bad, right or wrong or benevolent or evil. They think this question should be determined by the church itself.

The defense counsels have submitted to the Pingdingshan Intermediate People’s Court [the suggestion that it] consider inviting people with expert knowledge to give their opinion about the evaluation in court. [These experts] include the well-known scholar on religious issues Zhang Zhipeng and Pastor Wang Yi of Chengdu’s Autumn Rain Reformed Church. As a house church member, Wang Yi was invited to the White House in 2006 and met with then-President George W. Bush. As for the defense counsel’s suggestion to summon expert witnesses to court, the court has to date given no response.

Lawyer Zhang Kai also said that the Communist Party, as the ruling party, believes in atheism and has all along taken a defensive position and even hostile position against any theist beliefs. Not only that, they have also exerted pressure on the defense lawyers of the defendants. According to lawyer Zhang Kai, the defense counsels in this case have been called in for talks with people from the relevant judicial and administrative departments in which they were asked to handle this case with caution or simply to quit the defense. However, the lawyers have withstood the pressure and are prepared to defend the innocence of the defendants.

While he was preparing for trial, the defense lawyer for Cao Xia, Li Guisheng, twice wrote a letter to the Pingdingshan Intermediate People’s Court, urging them to try this case in an open court. He said that [when] a criminal case is tried in a People’s Court according to “Criminal Procedural Law” or the Supreme People’s Court handles it according to the interpretation of the applicable “Criminal Procedural Law,” the most fundamental issue of whether the defendants can get a fair trial is whether it is heard in an open court. The defense counsels should not feel as if the whole case was like “seeing flowers in a fog” or “like fog, like rain and like wind all at the same time.”

We don’t know if it was due to the pressure from the outside world, but the Pingdingshan Intermediate People’s Court has finally decided to hold the trial of the second instance September 27. A reporter from Voice of America tried to contact the lawyers involved in this case. The lawyers said that while the case was ongoing, it would be inappropriate for them to accept media interviews.

Some analysts pointed out that according to the provisions in the 1954 Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, Chinese citizens enjoy freedom of religious belief. The final verdict from the “Pingdingshan Religious Case” is being viewed as a test of the sincerity and determination of the Chinese government in putting this Constitutional principle into practice.

Voice of America reporter Yawei, reporting from Washington D.C.

China Aid Contacts

Rachel Ritchie, English Media Director

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