Worsening Religious Persecution:
Church destructions & martyrdom

The worsening campaign against Christians and other religious believers in China has been highlighted by several particularly stark cases of religious persecution of late. The campaign against the churches in Wenzhou has been described, both locally and by experts, as the most destructive crackdown since the Cultural Revolution. Reports have emerged of the destruction, closure and confiscation of hundreds of churches since the beginning of November.

According to a report from inside China, the Wenzhou Daily of 12th December 2000 related that between mid November and 5th December, 256 churches were destroyed, 153 banned and 19 taken for other purposes in Ouhai district, 527 churches were destroyed, 35 banned and 74 taken for other purposes in Changnan County, 4 churches were destroyed and 4 taken for other purposes in Wencheng County and 9 churches were banned in Taishun County.

According to the report, 62 anti-religion teams were formed out of Yueqing City and sent out to the four local districts to destroy churches and temples. 23 supervision teams were formed in Ouhai district under the command of the district leader and sent to the villages. In Changnan County, 52 government officials were divided into 16 supervision teams which were sent to villages and towns to strengthen the implementation of the policy.

A report from a witness in Wenzhou recounted how soldiers had come to bomb a beautiful church building, but were hesitant to do so when they saw how good the structure was. Moved as well by the kindness of the owners of the church, who graciously offered them tea, the soldiers reported to their leaders that they were hesitant to carry out the bombing. Nevertheless, they were commanded to continue the mission regardless of other factors. The source reported that 26 Protestant churches in Wenzhou City had been bombed. The authorities have been open in admitting the attacks, confirming the destruction of hundreds of places of worship, as well as their intent to demolish illegal religious buildings and 'correct' lifestyles that have become 'decadent 'through following unregistered religious groups.

Experts are concerned that this is a first strike in a campaign that may be planned for implementation throughout the country. It is felt that the Chinese authorities may be using this case as a litmus test to determine the international response before launching the campaign elsewhere.

The destruction of churches is far from a new phenomenon in China. Such activities have been taking place on an ongoing basis, but have often failed to reach international attention. It is reported that more than 10,000 religious meeting places are estimated to have been banned or destroyed in recent years. Clearly exact figures are difficult to substantiate, but it is unquestionable that the recent church destructions are part of a larger and longer-term policy to destroy all religious activity that does not come under state control. The aggressive implementation of the policy of control through registration, has caused incalculable human misery, including loss of life, torture and deprivation of liberty as well as confiscation and destruction of church and personal property.

The pain of such persecution has been underlined by an in memoriam text written by the pastor of Liu Haitao, the 21 year old Chinese Christian who was martyred for his faith in October this year. The pastor writes:
"In this so-called "nation of religious freedom," thousands of Christian believers are being persecuted for their faith. They are often arrested without warrant, detained in police detention centres, beaten, and then sent to "labour educational camps". ... Some of them are persecuted to death just for being faithful to God. "

Liu, who was born on 24th June 1979 in Liu Fang Lou Village, Ji Yang Town, Xiayi County, Henan Province, died on the night of 15th October 2000, following brutal treatment in detention. He was arrested on 4th September 2000 for attending an unregistered religious meeting and was held in jail in Qinyang City in Henan Province. He was transferred to Xiayi County, where he was charged with participating in illegal religious activities. A detention card was issued on 28th September and Liu's family were told to pay RMB 5,000 (approx. US$ 600) for his release. Unable to afford this steep sum, they could not secure his release. Beatings and torture are standard treatment for detained Christians in this area. During Liu's harsh detention, his kidney disease relapsed and he fainted several times in the week leading up to his death. Liu and his fellow detainees pleaded that he be given treatment, but their requests fell on stony ground. The camp authorities only notified Liu's father of his condition the day before he died and refused to allow him to take Liu to the hospital until the day of his death. Liu's heavy shackles were only released at 5 p.m. on the day that he died. Realising that Liu was dying, the authorities sought to distance themselves from responsibility and finally issued a release card. That night, Liu died in the arms of his mother. His expression was marked with peace and joy as he faced death, telling his mother: "Mum, I am very happy, I am fine. Mum, just persist in our belief and follow Him to the end. I am going now, Mum. Pray for me." As he rested against his mother, his final word on earth was a very weak, but clear "Amen".

Liu's faith had been an inspiration to many. A born again Christian for only a year and a half, Liu had demonstrated his devotion and readiness to serve God. Even in prison he gave away his meagre portion of food, believing that loving God meant loving others. His devotion is demonstrated in the following excerpt from one of his letters: "By His unlimited great love, the Lord saved me. He leads me to eternal life and entitles me to become a son of God. How can I ignore His salvation and freely accept His grace without doing something for him in return. More than 90 per cent of people in China don't know God. My heart is broken. If the Lord is going to use me, I am ready to give my life to Him and start the journey of serving Him."

In China, such a decision can mean grave persecution, and in some cases, such as Liu's, death. However, the church remains strong and sees persecution bearing fruit in the astounding growth of the church, which is now estimated to be around 70 million strong. During CSW's recent visit to China, believers repeatedly stressed that they were ready to pay the price for their faith, but called on those outside to recognise the reality of their persecution, pray for them and voice concern about their treatment.

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Revival brings bombings from Chinese authorities

In the name of "protecting religious freedom," Chinese authorities in southern Zhejiang province closed or destroyed - in some cases dynamited - at least 450 churches, temples and shrines in a campaign launched in early November.

To the astonishment of international observers, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhang Qi Yue said on December 13, "It is clear that China has been carrying out a policy of protecting religious freedom."

Privately, a government official in Beijing admitted to Compass that "these forced closures - albeit of illegally constructed churches and temples - are a disaster for our image abroad."

The campaign of closure was orchestrated from Wenzhou, a prosperous port city of 600,000 people in southern Zhejiang province, and extended over seven surrounding counties, which have a combined population of approximately seven million.

This area has seen a massive religious revival, particularly for the religions of Buddhism and Christianity. According to the country's official Protestant church, the Three Self Patriotic Movement, there are 700,000 believers in the Wenzhou municipality and 50,000 in the city of Wenzhou.

Evangelical China watchers refer to the Wenzhou area as "one of the twin fountainheads of revival in China (the other being southern Henan province), and claim the total percentage of Christians may be as high as 15 percent, with some areas consisting of villages that are 100 percent Christian.

According to a Hangzhou-based evangelist who returned from a teaching trip in the area last October, "Wenzhou is unique because of the unusually high density of Christians, plus the fact that they are prosperous, plus the fact that government officials often wink in the face of this growth, (which) has resulted in many house church groups building churches for themselves."

He added, "I know of no other area where there is so much building. They never attempt to register the churches, knowing the Three Self will block permission, but most go ahead in the belief that the government will not react."

Yet evidence is scant that the Wenzhou authorities have been noticeably more tolerant of religious expression than authorities in other areas. The demolishing of church structures that have no legal permission is not new to the region. In 1996, Compass reported the dynamiting of five church buildings in May of that year, two of them in the suburbs of Wenzhou itself.

However, no one doubts the scale of the current closures is unique. According to Washington Post correspondent Philip P. Pan, "The countryside here is dotted with the ruins of churches the government has torn down in recent weeks." He also claimed that many churches have been seized and converted into schools, one even turned into a training center for Communist Party officials.

There is still uncertainty over the exact scale of the crackdown. On December 12, provincial authorities were quoted as saying 449 religious centers had been closed or blown up, but no time scale was given. Another source in the Wenzhou city government said a "Rectify Illegal Religious Activities Office" was set up in October. But the Hong Kong-based Democratic Centre for Human Rights and Democracy claimed that 1,300 churches and temples had been closed
throughout the entire province since December 1999.

Officials explaining the reasons for the crackdown have been hard to find, though their few quoted remarks reveal the usual justification, namely, that if a religious activity is unauthorized, then it must be stamped out to ensure "social stability."

China's laws require all religious activity must take place in government-controlled organizations and settings. Most Protestants and Catholics refuse to belong to these organizations, where they claim there is unwarranted interference to the free expression of their faith.

Sources indicate the crackdown was initiated locally, although there is also no question that Wenzhou officials are merely following general directives issued from the Beijing central government. According to a sympathetic government official in Beijing, "You have to understand that the government leaders are completely spooked by their complete inability to defeat Falun Gong these past two years, and local provincial governments have taken their cue from the tough tactics, sometimes to curry favor with Beijing."

House church leaders are making different conclusions. A Shanghai-based house church leader, whose movement boasts over 50,000 members in the Wenzhou area, said, "It just shows that even prosperity is no guarantee against government repression. We must be more careful not to build structures that can so easily be torn down and 'remember the true kingdom of God is not built with human hands.'"

(Alex Buchan)

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