A 2012 raid on a Bible study group in rural Henan province has resulted in the jailing of seven participants for being members of an "evil cult". More than a year after the incident, those convicted and their families are still looking for answers, writes Xu Donghuan. Pictures by Simon Song
''You are all surrounded," heard Wen Yanzhao, with a start. He had just finished lunch and was sitting on the roof of a farmhouse, in the shade of a large tree, playing with his mobile phone. He watched in amazement as dozens of police officers in plain clothes, each wielding a baton, broke into the courtyard.
"All the Christian brothers were taking a nap inside. They were dragged by their hair, one by one, out of their beds and were made to squat at the centre of the courtyard," he recalls, clearly still angry about the event, which took place on April 14, last year.
Wen scurried to a side room to hide but was chased out by a policeman with a baton. "I was very scared and had no idea what was going on," the 25-year-old says.
Having come from a neighbouring town to visit his sister and year-old niece, in Daying village, in Henan province's Ye county, nearly 800 kilometres south of Beijing, Wen had joined a Bible study group.
After being subdued, he and a dozen other men from the study group were escorted to a bus parked on the main road outside the village and driven to a local primary school. They were led to a small classroom with a dirty, wet floor and were given "smelly" food to eat.
Female members of the study group were being held elsewhere at the school, among them Wen's sister, who was joined later by the baby daughter she needed to breastfeed.
The next day, the two groups, 54 people in all - who had been picked up from three Daying courtyard houses, two of which were used only as lodgings - were taken to the village's animal quarantine station for questioning. Before he was released, at the end of the day, Wen was made to write a pledge saying he'd never again attend such a gathering. Two officials from his town came to pick him up. After having taken him home, they asked Wen's mother to give them 200 yuan (HK$250) for their trouble. They left without offering her a receipt.
The following day, Wen returned to the place from which he'd been taken. Every corner of the house had been ransacked; cupboards were open and their contents had been tossed onto the floors. He could not find his personal belongings, he says, which included a guitar and his mobile phone.
"We were just reading the Bible and singing worship songs and did not violate any laws," he says. "It's hard to believe they did this to us."
He learnt later from villagers that the county's entire complement of officers - about 200 in all, including riot police with water cannons - had been mobilised for the round-up and that the searches of the three properties went on until dark.
"They were worse than bandits," says the wife of Zhang Fengshun, owner of the main courtyard house.
Zhang says thousands of yuan in cash was missing after the raid and that the police even took clothes, bottled water and food from his house. Other members of the group lost laptops and other valuables. Nothing has been returned to them so far.
The local public security bureau has a different version of the story. It says its officers raided an illegal gathering of an evil cult and seized nearly 800 copies of Morning Revival, The Collected Works of Watchman Nee and the Recovery Version of the Bible. The Domestic Security and Anti-terrorism Team at the Public Security Bureau of Pingdingshan city, which has jurisdiction over Ye county, identifies those three titles as being materials used by "evil cult" The Shouters.
CHRISTIANITY WAS INTRODUCED to Henan in the late 1880s by Western missionaries. In 1949, the province had 70,000 Christians, about 10 per cent of China's total. After 1958, 80 per cent of the province's churches were closed down, forcing Christian believers underground and to pray at secret family gatherings.
The China Anti-Cult Association says on its website that The Shouters, an offshoot of a group called the Local Churches, was founded in 1962, in the United States, by Li Changshou (aka Witness Lee, a preacher who was born in Yantai, Shandong province). Having reached China in 1979, The Shouters had gained a foothold in 20 provinces and had more than 200,000 mainland followers by 1984. Lee distorted the teachings of Christianity and encouraged his followers to chant "Lord Changshou", the website says. Leaders in his organisation, it says, declare they "want to mobilise all churches and challenge the Chinese Communist Party and the government till the end".
The general revival of Christian belief in the mainland, which began around 1974, was met with severe government crackdowns. In 1983, Beijing launched a nationwide "strike-hard" anti-crime campaign. In Henan, house churches that refused to join government-approved churches were labelled "reactionary shouters" and believers who promoted books by Watchman Nee (a Christian teacher who worked in the mainland in the early 20th century) and Witness Lee were sent to prison.
The Recovery Version - that used in Daying - is a study Bible translated by the Living Stream Ministry with aids, such as footnotes, charts and maps, produced by Lee. A non-profit corporation founded in 1965 by Lee, Living Stream Ministry, which is based in California, in the US, also publishes the works of Watchman Nee. Morning Revival is a series of pamphlets dedicated to morning worship and study printed by the ministry.
In 1995, the government branded The Shouters and its derivatives, which include the Church of Almighty God, or Eastern Lightning, an evil cult. Further "strike-hard" campaigns were launched, in 1996, 2001 and 2010.
"Each time … there were arrests at house churches here," says a worshipper in Daying.
A WEEK AFTER LAST April's raids, seven members of the group that had been taken in, four women and three men, were formally detained on charges of using an evil cult to sabotage law enforcement; and on May 25, they were arrested and placed into the custody of the Ye county detention centre.
On December 13, a trial was held. Their lawyers insisted the defendants were not Shouters but law-abiding Christians who took part in a house-church meeting and had not undermined the government, the people, society or science, which, the government believes, members of evil cults are wont to do. The anti-terrorism team from Pingdingshan, the lawyers pointed out, didn't have the authority to identify the printed materials as being those used by The Shouters and therefore shouldn't have offered an opinion as evidence against the accused.
On April 1 this year, the People's Court of Ye county sentenced each group member to between 7½ and three years imprisonment. The court said in the verdict that Han Hai, 60, and Hu Linpo, 51, had been punished before for their involvement in The Shouters but they had never shown remorse, so should be dealt with harshly.
Han, who says he became a Christian in 1972, has been detained six times for his faith, according to a new lawyer, Zhang Kai, and was jailed for three years in 1988. This time, he was given a 7½-year sentence for recruiting members and conducting regular lectures for them. Hu, who was detained for a month in 1989, was sentenced to seven years for having a similar role.
In 2004, the courtyard of the Zhang family, the main gathering spot for worshippers, had been identified as a Shouters den and was raided. Last April, Zhang Fengshun, who has cancer, was visiting a doctor in Guangzhou when the police smashed down his door. His sister, Zhang Mian, though, was among the seven arrested.
Not long after last year's arrests, Zhang Fugen and Zhang Xiuju, two elders from the government-approved Christian church in Ye, were invited to the religious affairs office of the county government, where they were asked to watch two VCDs of Han and Hu preaching at the house church.
"After I watched the VCDs, I told the officials there, including one from the local public security bureau, that I could not find anything in their preaching that was against the Bible or the Communist Party," Zhang Fugen says, in a telephone interview with Post Magazine. "I'm a Christian and cannot tell lies."
LOCATED ON THE OUTSKIRTS of Daying, the Zhang family home has been the centre of the villagers' religious life since the late 1970s, when the matriarch, who had been feeling frail, pinned her hopes on God and invited her neighbours to come and pray with her.
"Most of the elders here began their faith in God due to illness," says Brother Han, who does not want to give his full name. Before last year's raids, about 100 villagers, a fifth of the total, frequented the home for worship and Bible study. "During the Spring Festival, when all villagers return from their work in the city, the courtyard teems with people," says Han.
Calligraphy on red paper spells out the phrases "Welcome Lord" and "Enter the Sacred City" on the front gate and on every wooden door inside. A whole wall inside is covered with posters and charts explaining the Bible.
In the courtyard is a poster bearing the words "the Local Church". So how closely are the Local Churches and The Shouters affiliated?
According to www.contendingforthefaith.org, a project defending the Local Churches, the two are poles apart.
"The Local Churches, Christian groups whose beliefs and practices are based on the teachings of Watchman Nee and Witness Lee, have no connection to aberrant religious groups in China, such as The Shouters, Eastern Lightning or the Church of Almighty God, which practise extreme, anti-Christian teachings," a statement on the website claims. However, the practice of calling out the Lord's name at the Local Churches has been a source of confusion. "Although Witness Lee taught the believers to practise calling the Lord's name, he never promoted shouting blindly, much less forming a sect based on this practice," the statement says.
On the same website, an article titled "We are the Local Churches and not The Shouters" says that, due to a lack of understanding of the teachings in the Bible, a minority of worshippers have deviated in their practices, in the process besmirching other groups in the eyes of the general public. The confusion has made it difficult for the authorities to distinguish between groups and it has become convenient for them to denounce any gathering that refuses to join a government-approved church as Shouters, and arrest its members.
The Local Churches were initiated in 1922 in Fuzhou, Fujian province, by Watchman Nee, aka Ni Tuosheng. By 1949, Nee had established about 600 Local Churches within China. In that year, as the Communist Party came to power, he asked Witness Lee, a disciple, to go to Taiwan, to continue their work. By 1955, the number of Local Churches in Taiwan had reached 65, with more than 20,000 members. In 1962, Lee relocated to the US, to further build membership of Local Churches.
Nee, who had stayed in the mainland, was arrested in 1952 and spent the last 20 years of his life in prison. His works are still officially banned in the mainland.
In the US, the Local Churches were greeted with suspicion by evangelicals. It was not until 2009, after a six-year re-evaluation, that the Christian Research Institute concluded that the Local Churches had been misunderstood, and were neither cultic nor aberrant, but merely different. In the same year, Christianity Today magazine honoured Nee by naming him one of the 100 most influential Christians of the 20th century. The recognition was followed by a tribute to Nee in the first session of the 111th Congress, by US Congressman Christopher Smith, who called Nee a great pioneer of Christianity in China.
Today, there are more than 3,000 Local Churches outside the mainland, including several hundred in the US.
WHEN THE VERDICT REACHED the families of the convicted in Daying, they wanted to appeal to a higher court.
"My husband did not say anything against the [Communist] Party. I don't understand what the verdict is based on," says 54-year-old Bai Jiuni, wife of Hu. She says the whole thing is even more incomprehensible to her because, inside the detention centre, the prisoners' main job is to make Buddhist incense. "While others can practise Buddhism and burn incense, why can't we believe in the Lord?" she asks.
On microblogging site Sina Weibo, the families found Christian lawyers willing to take up the case for a token fee. On May 15, 14 new defence lawyers, two for each defendant, were appointed.
"I cannot find anything in the file which shows my defendant, Han Hai, has committed evil conduct that has disrupted social order," says Zhang Kai. "The law only allows us to determine from his behaviour, not the books he reads or his beliefs, whether he's guilty or not.
"Another question raised here is whether our religious freedoms, which are written in the constitution, mean a citizen can believe in a religion not endorsed by the party."
According to the website of the Pushi Institute for Social Science, an independent non-profit think tank aimed at promoting freedom of belief within the framework of the law, Henan now has more than 17 million Christians: 2.4 million in government-approved churches and 15 million belonging to house churches.
Another of the lawyers, Fan Biaowen, says: "The government's crackdown on evil cults is a sheer control of ideology. This is a political persecution and it infringes upon the religious freedom of citizens."
Fan's client, Wang En, 25, is accused of making CDs containing songs of worship. She has been sentenced to three years in prison.
Xiao Fanghua, Wang's other lawyer, believes that it's beyond the capability of a secular government to judge the beliefs of its citizens.
"A secular government can only interfere when one's behaviour harms the society. Our soul is in the sphere of God. A government that practises atheism has no ability to decide whether a belief is authentic or not," he says.
"Some of the Local Churches are Shouters but not all of them," says Wang Hongjie, a lawyer from Guangzhou. "You need to see their practice inside the church to make the decision."
Wang Hongjie is in Ye to represent 25-year-old Li Dan, who is also accused of burning CDs containing songs of worship.
An appeal for a retrial was to be made at the People's Court of Ye county last Thursday, but it has been postponed. It will probably now be some time before the Pingdingshan Intermediate People's Court decides on the fate of the seven being held.
Meanwhile, it is harvest season in southern Henan. On both sides of the roads, vast fields of golden wheat extend far into the distance. Wen has returned home to his family to assist with the harvest.
However, when the work eases off again, he says, he will return to his Bible studies.
"There are many house churches in the villages," he says. "I was born and raised in a Christian family. The incident last year cannot change our belief in the Lord."
The following are other evil cults, as defined by the quasi-governmental China Anti-Cult Association. The Shouters and the first six on this list were named by the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the State Council, the final seven by the Ministry of Public Security. All were listed between November 1995 and March 1999. The Falun Gong would not be branded an "evil cult" until July 1999, so does not appear on the association's list. According to Yang Fenggang, author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule, there are more than 20 groups categorised as evil cults nationwide, as well as others listed as such by provincial governments.
The Disciples Also known as The Narrow Gate in the Wilderness in Hubei province, The Disciples were founded in 1989 by Ji Sanbao, a Shaanxi province farmer. By 1995, The Disciples had spread to 300 counties in 14 provinces and had 350,000 followers. Ji claimed to be Jesus himself and have 12 disciples. He predicted the end of the world would come in 2000. Ji died in a traffic accident in 1997.
All Ranges Church Also known as the Born Again Movement, the All Ranges Church was founded in Pingdingshan, Henan province, by Peter Xu Yongze, in 1968, during the Cultural Revolution, when all churches were officially closed. It is a house-church network whose membership may run into the millions. Xu taught that weeping was essential evidence of repentance. He was arrested in 1997 on charges of "being a leader of a banned religious cult, disrupting public order and spreading religious heresy about the imminent end of the world". He was jailed for three years and moved to the United States upon release.
The Spirit-Spirit Sect Also known as Spiritual Religion and the Spirit Sect, this movement was founded in 1983 by Hua Xuehe, a farmer in Huaiyin, Jiangsu province. Hua claimed that one "could only be saved" through believing in his sect. At its peak, membership reached 15,000. The Spirit-Spirit Sect is also believed to have encouraged its members to oppose the local government and the Communist Party, and attack the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (the state-sanctioned Protestant church). They declared that "the nation must be ruled by the Gospel" and that "the Spirit-Spirit section should unify the world". Hua was arrested in the early 1990s and sent to a labour camp despite 700 members protesting.
The New Testament Church This church was founded by Hong Kong-based actress Kong Duen-yee in 1963, three years after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. After Kong died, in 1966, Ruth Cheong, her daughter, took the New Testament Church to Taiwan. Its current leader is Elijah Hong, who exported the New Testament Church around the world, including to the mainland. Hong claims he is the last prophet, New Testament is the only true church and that all other church groups, as well as all nations, are satanic.
Goddess of Mercy Doctrine Founded in 1988 by Shi Ching-hai, in Taiwan, the Goddess of Mercy Doctrine was introduced to the mainland in 1992. By 1999, the organisation claimed to have 500,000 followers in 20 provinces and cities.
Lord God Religion Founded in 1993 by Liu Jiaguo, the Lord God Religion had more than 10,000 followers in more than 22 provinces, autonomous regions and cities before it was banned as a cult in 1998. Liu was executed the following year.
Established King Established King was founded in 1988 by Wu Yangming, a peasant in Anhui province. Wu, who had only a primary school education, became a Christian in his late 20s but shortly afterwards was drawn into "cultist" activities. By the late 1980s, he was actively spreading his teachings and proclaiming himself to be the messiah. Group members zealously evangelised, attacking the Communist Party and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, and declared the end of the world was imminent. Claiming to be God incarnate, Wu reportedly raped more than 100 female followers. One of them escaped and alerted the police, who arrested him. He was executed on December 29, 1995.
Unification Church Also known as The Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, and by the nickname The Moonies, the Unification Church was founded in South Korea in 1954 by the late Sun Myung Moon, who claimed he was the messiah. Born in what is now North Korea, he had been jailed for preaching Christianity there. He was also known as an anti-commu-nist activist. He attracted media attention for presiding over mass weddings and marriage rededication ceremonies.
Three Grades of Servants The sect was founded by Xu Wenku, who began preaching in the early 70s in central Henan province. In November 2006, Xu and two other members of the sect were executed in secret, for allegedly murdering 20 members of a rival group.
True Buddha School A new sect using teachings taken from Buddhism and Taoism, the True Buddha School was founded by Taiwanese-born Lu Sheng-yen, who is revered by his disciples as a living Buddha. In 1989, he presided over a ceremony in Hong Kong to pray for the souls of compatriots who had died on June 4.
Family International Formed as the Children of God, this religious group was started in 1968, in California, by David Berg, who took the titles of "King" and "Moses". He communicated with his followers via Mo Letters - letters of instruction and counsel on myriad spiritual and practical subjects - until his death in 1994. The group encouraged children to have sex with adults and each other.
The Dami Mission A Christian movement founded in 1988 in South Korea by Lee Jang-rim, the mission reached China in early 1992. Lee predicted the Rapture and the end of the world would occur on October 28, 1992. When they didn't, Lee was convicted of defrauding his followers out of millions of dollars.
World Elijah Evangelical Mission Currently known as the Elijah Ten Commandments Stone Country Korean Farmers Salvation Association, this group was founded by Park Myung-ho in 1980. Park claimed to be the last prophet, Elijah, and asked his believers to worship him as "the Immortal Stone". He named his organisation Stone Country, for which he drafted up a constitution, a national flag and an anthem. He predicted doomsday would come in 2000.