Arrest in China of 100 House Church Leaders Confirms Trend

Chinese police arrested 100 house church leaders on the afternoon of June 11 as they gathered for a retreat in the central city of Wuhan. The retreat was organized by the China Gospel Fellowship or CGF, one of the largest house church networks in China.

Those arrested included Xing Jinfu, 39, who has already been arrested three times in the past for church related activities. The 100 leaders are being held at an unknown location, according to the China Aid Association which first received the news.

On the same day, Shen Xianfeng, senior leader of the China Gospel Fellowship (CGF), was placed under house arrest.

The arrests are the latest in a series of incidents this year which seem to indicate a renewed crackdown against unregistered churches.

At the National Religious Working Conference held in January 2004, Communist officials were urged to “recommit to supervising religious activities and to guard against the influence of foreign church affiliated groups.”

According to Asia News, the state council then gave RMB 450 million (54.4 million dollars) to the Religious Affairs Bureau to build a team of expert cadres and eliminate unregistered religious groups.

A second Provincial Religious Working Conference was held in Guangdong province from May 20 to 21. A directive issued after this conference called for every level of government to work together “to subdue the religious penetration of antagonistic overseas forces in the name of religion.”

Reports of arrests began to filter out of China in April, when the New York-based Committee for Investigation on Persecution of Religion in China reported that Xu Shuangfu, group leader in the controversial Three Grades Servants house church movement, was kidnapped while visiting the northeastern province of Heilongjiang.

On April 26, more than 90 of Xu’s co-workers and fellow believers were arrested. One of them, 28-year-old Gu Xianggao, was beaten to death in police custody on April 27, according to a report by China Aid.

However, sources in China told Compass that the Three Grades Servants movement is included on the government’s list of “evil cults.” Most Christian groups in China believe the Three Grades Servants movement is actually a cult, which illustrates the complex religious demography in China. With so many churches driven underground, it is often difficult to distinguish between orthodox Christian churches and heretical cults.

China Aid also reported the arrest of well-known house church leader Zhao Wenquan on May 9 in Meng Cheng county, Anhui province. A report by the Associated Press confirmed Zhao’s arrest and claimed that, “Over the past year, scores of church leaders have been detained and church meeting places demolished.”

Zhao was released 14 days after his arrest. China Aid investigators said Zhao suffered only “minor beatings” and was in good spirits after his release.

The Catholic Church has also been targeted. Joseph Kung of the Cardinal Kung Foundation reported that two Catholic bishops, Wei Jingyi and Jia Zhiguo, were arrested in March and April. On May 14, Lu Genjun and Cheng Xiali, both priests in the underground Roman Catholic Church, were added to the list.

Another source who declined to be named reported the arrest of 40 Protestant believers from a house church near Wuhan in early May. On May 29, 13 of those arrested were still in custody. Some of those released had been fined as much as $120.

Yet another source reported the expulsion in early 2004 of three foreigners who had been working with Chinese house church believers in southwest China.

These events show that the Chinese Communist Party has not made any significant changes to its religious policy under the leadership of President Hu Jintao.

The Communist Party has also broken trust with the CGF, whose leadership thought they had achieved a rapprochement with authorities after an incident involving the cult group Eastern Lightning in 2002.

In April of that year, 34 of the top CGF leaders were kidnapped by members of Eastern Lightning. In desperation, members of the CGF approached the government in Beijing and appealed for help to secure their release.

In return for information about Eastern Lightning, the government assured CGF leaders that their own movement would be taken off the official list of “dangerous cults.”

Shen told Compass in an interview earlier this year that the CGF were more open in their meetings as a result of these assurances. However, some leaders have concluded their trust in the government was misplaced.

Many house churches across China continue to wrestle with the issue of official registration. The mass arrest of CGF leaders is likely to confirm the deep-seated belief of many house church Christians that the Communist Party cannot be trusted.

China has sought to portray itself as a modern and civilized society in the lead-up to the Olympic Games in 2008. However, recent incidents prove that China still has a long way to go in its progress towards true religious freedom.