'No Visits' For Detained Christians

Chinese authorities have sent scholars to talk to house church pastors; but detained worshipers are denied contact with their lawyer and are yet to be charged.

bible-305.jpg Chinese Christians share a Bible during Christmas mass, Dec. 25, 2008.

HONG KONG--Authorities in the central Chinese province of Hubei are holding three members of an underground evangelical church, banning fellow worshipers, family members or lawyers from visiting, their lawyer said.

Law enforcement officials swooped on meetings of the banned charismatic South China Church in separate raids in Jingmen and Zaoyang cities last October and December, detaining several worshipers under suspicion of taking part in a group that Beijing designates an "evil cult."

Fellow worshipers and a lawyer representing three of the detainees in Jingmen said the authorities were refusing to name the charges under which the two men and one woman were being held.

"Three brothers and sisters from our church were detained. It has been three months now, and we haven't heard anything about their situation," said a follower of the church, which has been raided by the authorities on and off ever since it was founded between 1990 and 1991.

"It was in Jingmen city, Hubei province. Their family aren't allowed to take them anything," he said.

Beijing-based lawyer Li Heping, who is representing the three Jingmen-based detained church members, said their case was still under investigation by the Jingmen municipal public security bureau, which had turned down his requests for a meeting with his clients.

Their family aren't allowed to take them anything

"We have been instructed by their families to go and meet with those detained. We went to the department in charge of the case, and they wouldn't tell us what charges they were being detained under," Li said.

"The official I spoke to refused even to give their name...We don't know why they won't tell us the charges," he added.

Lawyers for Christians across China say courts have been instructed to reject appeals or complaints lodged against the authorities by members of unofficial "house churches," which aren't officially recognized by Beijing.

Li said he would make another request for a meeting with the detained members of the church, whose former leader Gong Shengliang was sentenced to death, commuted to life imprisonment, for alleged physical abuse and sexual assaults on young female members of the group.

Cao Shengjie, Vice President of the China Christian Council, is reported to have said that Gong's church is an "evil cult," although no mention was made of religion during Gong's trial.

“Evil cult” is a term used by Beijing in its campaign against the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, which shook China's leadership with bold protests in the Chinese capital in 1999.

Huge breakthrough

But there are signs the authorities may be trying to get closer to China's army of unofficial worshipers, according to Beijing-based house church pastor Jin Mingri, who was meetings with top religious affairs advisers last December.

"There wasn't a direct meeting with representatives of the government," Jin said. "But they sent scholars from the [official] religious affairs research institute, who made it clear that this was an initiative from the top."

"They wanted to gain a fuller understanding of how China's house churches saw themselves, society at large, and the government. They also wanted to ask if we had any suggestions or comments to give to officials higher up."

They sent scholars from the [official] religious affairs research institute, who made it clear that this was an initiative from the top.

"They said they wanted to hear the opinions of the house churches. I think that this is a huge breakthrough in itself," Jin 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 more rural areas of the country, according to overseas rights groups.

Officially an atheist country, China nonetheless employs officials whose job is to watch over faith-based activities, which have spread rapidly in the wake of massive social change 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 non-recognized temples, churches, or mosques is against the law.

The president of the China House Churches' Alliance, Zhang Mingxuan, said there had been few raids on house churches in January, suggesting a possible easing of restrictions on the groups.

"I haven't heard of anyone getting detained since the New Year," Zhang said. "It looks as if things are getting better. I and my wife were invited out to eat by religious affairs officials and police officers from Nanyang city in Hunan province just before the Lunar New Year."

"They told us they regarded us all as genuine believers, and that they hoped President Hu Jintao would extend some form of official recognition to us," Zhang added.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Qiao Long and Fang Yuan. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou.


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