Beijing, China - "As a sensitive day known to all fell in this week, many brothers and sisters began to be restricted at home," report the leaders of the Shouwang congregation, one of the largest unauthorized "house churches" in Beijing. "Some were told to report at their respective local police stations or neighborhood committees" that answer to the communist government.
The "sensitive day" is June 4, the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, when Chinese communist tanks crushed democracy protests in Beijing's main square. In China, the date is simply known as "the June Fourth Incident."
This year the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre fell during the ninth week of a stand-off between one of China's largest underground churches and the communist government. The slow-burning Shouwang showdown has resulted in arrests and police disruption of peaceful assembly, once again attracting international concern about China's human rights record. How the regime resolves the standoff with these self-described "Christians and citizens who deeply love the country" will tell the world much about China's future.
The Shouwang church began in a home about 15 years ago. Today it has grown to 1,000 members, including many well-educated and affluent congregants whose spiritual hunger was not satisfied in state-sanctioned churches. As Ursula Gauthier observed recently in Time magazine, "the new, Christ-conscious Chinese upper class is on a moral collision course with a government that it perceives as soulless."
Forced out of rented meeting space in 2009, the Shouwang church bought its own property - only to be denied access by the government. Ousted from rental space once again this spring, the congregation has sought to meet outdoors for the last two months. But each week, their worship services have been disrupted. On Easter Sunday, hundreds were detained by police. Pastor Jin Tianming has been under house arrest for nine weeks.
The Shouwang church is the most recent target of communist authorities' crackdown on the unauthorized house church movement that now numbers as many as 70 million Chinese Christians.
In May, 19 Chinese pastors joined together to send a remarkable and unprecedented petition to the National People's Congress on behalf of the congregation. Reportedly drafted by Xie Moshan and Li Tianen, whom The New York Times describes as "patriarchs of the house church movement," the petition has now been joined by several thousand signatories worldwide.
It goes beyond calling for redress of one church's afflictions. "We believe that the Shouwang Church incident is not an individual, isolated episode that happens to a single church but rather a typical phenomenon in respect of the conflict between state and church during the period of social transition."
That conflict between state and church, the pastors argue, can be resolved only with official recognition of religious liberty, an essential step to ensure freedom, stability and prosperity for China:
"We believe that liberty of religious faith is the first and foremost freedom in human society, is a universal value in the international community, and is also the foundation for other political and property rights. Without the universal and equitable liberty of religious faith, a multi-ethnic, multi-religion country would not be able to form a peaceful civil society, or bring about social stability, ethnic solidarity or the nation's prosperity."
The petition cites the Chinese constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in arguing for robust religious liberty - including "freedoms of assembly, association, speech, education and evangelism" - for congregations outside the network of communist-approved churches.
In April, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom once again identified China as a "country of particular concern," ranking it among the most serious violators of religious liberty worldwide.
Now the anxious communist regime has forced a showdown with a courageous and well-connected congregation. In the midst of the tension, the Shouwang Church and its allies have made their appeal for freedom in good faith.
The latest update from church leaders includes a prayer for their opponents, even as they know whose side is on the moral high ground: "May God have mercy on the police officers and employees of related agencies who live in nervousness all day long."