Pastor Freed, Others Still Held

Chinese authorities pressure Protestant Christians to register with state-controlled churches.
2011-09-15
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A woman walks to a Christian church in Beijing, April 17, 2011.
AFP

Officials in the southern Chinese province of Henan have released a Protestant pastor nine months before the end of his jail term.

Meanwhile, members of an unofficial Protestant church in Beijing continue to be detained, with a prominent pastor held under house arrest.

House church pastor Zhang Rongliang was released on Aug. 31 from a Kaifeng prison after being detained in 2004 and sentenced to seven years in jail for "forging exit documents," a charge which his supporters say was trumped up.

Zhang, who suffered a stroke in 2007, is chronically ill with diabetes, according to the U.S.-based Christian rights group China Aid.

Zhang was apparently uncontactable by phone this week, however.

Fellow members of China's unofficial Protestant "house churches" say they continue to be targeted by authorities with detentions, house arrest, and other forms of official pressure.

Hundreds of members of the Shouwang Protestant church have been repeatedly detained by police in Beijing for attending open-air prayer gatherings after the government blocked access to the church's own premises.

"Basically I am still being held at home, and can't go out," senior Shouwang pastor Jin Tianming said on Thursday. "There are people in the corridor 24-hours a day, watching."

"This has been going on since April 10," Jin said. "We senior pastors are under 24-hour surveillance at home. They let some of our other brothers and sisters out at the weekend."

Raids stepped up

While leaders of China's unofficial churches, which overseas groups estimate as having some 40 million followers, say their activities have little to do with politics or human rights, raids on unofficial worship have been stepped up in a recent nationwide security clampdown.

Protestant worshippers in the southwestern province of Sichuan, meanwhile, say they have come under heavy pressure from local officials to register with China's official Protestant body, if they wish to continue to attend religious events.

"We have spoken to the religious affairs bureau," said one house church follower from Sichuan's Guangyuan city surnamed He. "They say we must stop [our meetings] this week, or they will take action against us."

"They want us to register ... with the [official] Three-Self Patriotic Movement," he said.

"House" churches, which operate without official registration documents and without the involvement of the local religious affairs bureaus, come in for surveillance and repeated raids, especially in the more rural areas of the country, according to overseas rights groups.

Officially an atheist country, China nonetheless has an army of officials whose job is to watch over faith-based activities, which have spread rapidly in the wake of massive social change and economic uncertainty since economic reforms began 30 years ago.

Party officials are put in charge of Catholics, Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, and Protestants. Judaism isn't recognized, and worship in nonrecognized temples, churches, or mosques is against the law.

Religious freedoms decline

Releasing the latest report on religious freedom around the world this week, U.S. State Department officials said the Chinese government’s attitude to religious freedom appears to have worsened recently.

"In China, the government's level of respect for religious freedom declined in 2010 and has worsened this year," Michael H. Posner, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, told reporters.

Posner cited the continued detention of Shouwang church followers and the ongoing repression of Tibetan Buddhists and Uyghur Muslims.

Pastor Zhang Mingxuan, who heads the nationwide Protestant Chinese House Church Alliance, said Guangyuan and Shouwang were among a number of house churches with large followings that had recently been targeted by the authorities.

"In Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia they detained more than 20 people, and they have been oppressed and daren't get in touch," Zhang said.

"There's another [church] in Shanxi, and pastor Shi Enhao in Jiangsu who has been detained for more than three months now."

He said the followers of large house churches are being hounded by officials wherever they try to congregate.

"Now they are driving them out of the churches and banning them from meeting together," Zhang said. "They are giving them documents which say that if they gather together again, they'll be arrested."

Meanwhile, in the southwestern province of Yunnan, a Christian family belonging to the animist Hani ethnic minority group has been denied water or electricity by local officials after the father, Li De, refused to take part in local cultural festivities, citing his Christian beliefs.

"They say if we ... join in this festival with them, then we won't have any problems," Li said in an interview on Thursday. "But it goes against our beliefs to take part in this event."

Reported by Fang Yuan for RFA's Mandarin service and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.