HONG KONG—Police have detained two Christians belonging to a family church in central China for more than two weeks, according to witnesses.
The two detainees, Chen Fengming and Qin Gaiying, were part of a 30-member underground congregation who had gathered to pray in Henan province’s Neixiang county when security officers stormed their place of worship.
A witness, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution by authorities, said Tuesday in a phone interview that the raid had occurred around 10:30 am the morning of April 25.
“Seven or eight police came in from a cruiser and two minivans. They weren’t wearing uniforms. They took pictures of our sisters and brothers and then led seven of us away,” the witness said.
A Beijing-based attorney surnamed Dai said the detention, which occurred in Jiadao village in Chimei township, was illegal because authorities did not produce proper documentation during the raid.
“Police took nine people away from the scene, but only detained seven of them. However, the security officers didn’t issue any legal document for the detention,” Dai said.
The witness said that after taking the group of Christians into custody, police announced their punishments.
“[They said that] worshippers Chen Fengming and Qin Gaiying will be sent to an ‘education through labor’ program because they have been detained before. All others will be held for four, five, or 10 days,” the witness said.
“Then the seven were transferred to the detention center where police asked them to pay their cost of living, and threatening them by saying that if they did not pay, their family members wouldn’t be allowed to visit,” he said.
According to an April 26 statement by the Texas-based religious rights watchdog China Aid, police at the detention center demanded 130 yuan (U.S. $19) from the family member of each detainee to pay for their cost of living.
In total, the group said, police demanded 1,850 yuan (U.S. $270) from family members, also as a “cost of living” payment, but never wrote receipts for the payments.
One church member surnamed Liu told Taiwanese media that two of the church members are still being held in detention, while the other five were released after their families paid fines.
"Two members of the congregation were asked for 900 yuan (U.S. $130) and the other three were asked for 1,300 yuan (U.S. $190), saying that is for the 'cost of living.' The other two refused to give in, but they are still detained because the police are blackmailing them."
Authorities again neglected to issue any legal documents to the freed church members detailing their charges.
When asked if the “cost of living” fees constituted a ransom to release the detained Christian believers, a police officer who answered the phone Tuesday at the Chimei township station said he could not comment because the case had been handled by county-level administrators.
“No. The case is with the National Security Bureau [of Neixiang county], and not under our jurisdiction. The Bureau takes care of things such as Christians.”
The officer did not deny the detention of the family church members.
An employee who answered the phone at the Neixiang county detention center said inmates are never charged “cost of living” fees.
“They don’t pay cost of living charges. They pay only pocket money.”
The man said a 15-day detention would only cost an inmate 15 yuan (U.S. $5) for things such as a toothbrush and toothpaste.
When questioned about the money which police had demanded from visitors as “cost of living” charges, the staff member denied the possibility.
“Who said that? No. It is impossible. No,” the employee said.
Another witness said Chen Fengming and Qin Gaiying, the two worshippers who were originally told they would be sent to a labor camp, had been allowed to return home for “self-education through labor,” but were made to pay 3,000 yuan (U.S. $439) for the special program.
The families of the two managed to pay the fees, but the witness said that as of Tuesday the men had not yet been released.
Attorney Dai said police had likely refused to issue receipts and legal documents for the charges and the detention so as to protect themselves from legal retribution.
“They didn’t want to leave any evidence of their actions, in order to prevent the worshippers from bringing a lawsuit against them later,” he said.
Crackdown on churches
Separately, more than 10 believers and church officials in Luoyang, Henan were detained May 5 when local authorities raided their house church.
Beijing-based house church activist Fan Yafeng told Taiwanese media that the group is still in custody.
"About one dozen people were detained and family members have been told by police to pay 3,000 yuan (U.S. $440) for their release or they will face heavier penalties, including the possibility of "education through labor."
"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 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 unapproved temples, churches, or mosques is against the law.
In its most recent report on human rights in China, the U.S. State Department said freedom of religion is permitted to varying degrees around China.
Original reporting by Qiao Long for RFA’s Mandarin service and Feng Ruiyao for RFA's Cantonese service. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated by Ping Chen and Joshua Lipes. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.