For China’s underground churches, it wasn’t an easy Christmas
Li Chengju glared at her prison interrogator as he urged her to renounce her Christian church and condemn her pastor.
Her captor warned that she would not be as lucky as the pastor, who was locked in secret detention but could at least spend a day in court.
âLook at you. You sweep the floors at church,â the interrogator said. âDo you think you’re going to have a trial like your pastor? You don’t qualify.
Li still refused to sign the document disavowing his church.
âI am a citizen who has faith,â she told the interrogator. âGod knows everything you do and he will judge you someday. “
Then she repeated a saying she had heard in church about the Chinese president: âXi Jinping sins against God. If he does not repent, he will be judged by God.
Li, who recounted his detention in a recent interview with The Times, was from the Early Rain Covenant Church, which authorities in Chengdu dissolved late last year as part of a massive government campaign. to curb the country’s fastest growing religion: Protestant Christianity.
The state-sanctioned Three-Self Church has long been the only legal place of worship for Christians in China, even as the country has seen a proliferation of so-called house churches – congregations such as Early Rain that meet in office buildings, hotel conference rooms. and other makeshift shrines.
The government calls its campaign “sinicization” – a euphemism for turning faith into a tool of indoctrination in the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party. The official five-year plan, released in 2018, calls for inserting “patriotic education” and “socialist core values” into churches, revising the Bible, and using church sermons to strengthen party leadership and reject foreign influences.
A pastor from Hong Kong, who spoke on condition that his name not be released, said the message was clear when a group of Chinese officials visited in 2016.
âYou keep talking about the separation of church and state,â he said, they told him and other theologians. “But the Chinese tradition is that the state rules and the church follows … In China, you are a tool to transform the people.”
The pastor said the campaign was repeating history in some ways.
In the 1950s, the newly established People’s Republic of China co-opted Protestant leaders with the anti-colonial slogan of the Three-Self Church: “Self-governance, self-sufficiency, self-propagation.”
But by the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, all religion was violently purged. Even the Church of the Three Autonomies was not immune, and many of its founders were tortured, sent to labor camps, and worked to the death.
The house church movement was born at the end of the Cultural Revolution, starting in rural areas, where massive conversion in provinces like Henan brought the number of Christians to 3 million in 1982. It quickly spread. to cities in the 1980s and 1990s, as preachers followed migrant workers, and Christianity became increasingly attractive to college students disillusioned with the Tiananmen Square massacre.
In 2018, official statistics indicated that there were 39 million Protestants in China. Researchers estimate that the inclusion of house church worshipers brings the actual number to at least 80 million, or nearly 6 percent of China’s population, on par with Communist Party members.
Fenggang Yang, founding director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University, predicts that by 2030, China will have more Christians than any other country.
He said the growth was of particular concern to Xi, who became General Secretary of the Communist Party in 2012 and Chinese President in 2013 with a government ideology centered on Communist Party control over all aspects of life.
âSince Xi took power, militant atheism has prevailed in China,â Yang said, contrasting this approach with the âenlightenment atheismâ of previous Chinese leaders.
âEnlightened atheism emphasized sympathy and education,â he said. “Militant atheism wants to control by political force.”
Experts have described sinization as a creepy process that begins when authorities ask house churches to register with the government, often promising not to interfere with the content of the preaching.
âThen they start documenting you,â said the pastor of a large house church in Chengdu, who requested anonymity. âSo your children cannot go to church. Then you need to plant a flag.
Eventually, the clergy are forced to modify their sermons to align with “core socialist values” and stick Communist Party slogans on the walls.
Having seen this process take place in other churches, the pastor refused to register. The police began to stand outside the church on a daily basis and to follow and harass the participants.
In August, his church left its makeshift sanctuary in an office building, dividing into small groups who gathered in houses instead.
âThe church is not a place,â said the pastor. âThe Church is a group of people. “
His congregation prepares for his arrest, hires lawyers, and trains members to lead smaller fellowship groups if he and the elders disappear.
Pastor of Early Rain, a former outspoken human rights lawyer named Wang Yi, has been detained since his church was closed on December 9, 2018. One of the church’s elders, Qin Defu, is also imprisoned , sentenced in November to four years for “illegal business operations”.
Unlike many traditional house churches, which focus on eternal salvation, their church nurtured Puritan visions of a changing China by being a “city on a hill.” Members supported the families of detained activists, worked with abandoned children and the disabled, and prayed every year on the anniversaries of the Sichuan earthquake and the Tiananmen Square massacre.
His message of social and cultural renewal through Christianity resonated deeply with Li, who grew up in a mud house in mountainous Yunnan Province and became a Christian while working as a real estate agent in Shenzhen in 2008.
Although she was baptized in a Church of the Three Autonomies, her faith did not begin to flourish until she joined Early Rain in 2017. She and her husband had moved to Chengdu because they wanted their girl goes to a school run by the church. They had heard that Early Rain had one and decided to go after watching one of Wang’s sermons online.
âI felt marginalized as a Christian,â said Li, now 34. âHere I understood that we are really ordinary people in society. “
Early Rain members continue to meet in small groups or congregate online. But many are under house arrest or have been forced to leave Chengdu after the owners evicted them or the police changed the locks on their doors.
Others fled China, prompting authorities to confiscate passports to prevent a larger exodus.
Li, who has moved to a suburb where there is less surveillance, said the church will persevere.
âEvery day we are in a battle against fear,â she said. “But we can pray, and God will be faithful.”