As Easter approached a few days ago, the leaders of an unofficial Christian church in China proclaimed their intention to defy Communist Party officials and hold outdoor Easter services. And sure enough, hundreds of church members were detained in their homes and 36 others were taken into custody after they tried to hold an Easter worship service in a public square. This new confrontation comes amid an increasing crackdown on unregistered faith groups. The conflict, overall, has inspired a condemnation from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom and raises questions about the state of religious freedom in China.
The Shouwang Church was established in 1993 and, according to its leaders, has sought government registration since 2006, but has been repeatedly refused. This is because the Chinese government, despite their claim to promote religious freedom, requires religious groups to gain government approval before they can legally gather. Earlier this month, hundreds of church members were rounded up and detained after they tried to hold another public worship service. The Shouwang Church has over 1,000 members. The public prayer services have been a response to the government’s attempts to restrict their access to property purchased in 2009.
“Beijing has again responded with ruthless intolerance to peaceful religious activity,” said Leonard Leo, the chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. “The Shouwang Church tried to play by rules that the Chinese government keeps changing. Beijing’s action further alienates the fast growing number of religious believers in China, particularly during Easter, the most sacred week in Christianity.”
These detentions come in the midst of a larger crackdown on dissent in China in an attempt to forestall events like the recent Jasmine Revolution. But because of the recent surge of religious fervor, particularly among Christians, it seems unlikely that most religious people will take these restrictions lying down. The Chinese government’s actions signal a renewed attempt to control independent religious practice, but the Shouwang Church shows no signs that they will accept these controls.
“The devil Satan has taken advantage of the authority God has granted to the national government and is seeking to destroy God’s church,” said Shouwang pastor Jin Tianming after the arrests earlier this month. A statement after the Easter detainments compared the church’s struggles to that of Christ:
“We pray especially for those brothers and sisters who in the past week or two have already been forced to move or leave their jobs. We ask God to remember the price they have paid for holding on to their faith and ask him to take care of their families and their daily life needs.”
For the millions of Chinese Christians who are a part of underground churches that refuse government regulations, this kind of persecution is extreme, but not out of the question. We’ll keep you posted on the struggle for religious freedom as this conflict unfolds.
Photo from asmodehn.fr.