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Religion in China

Inside China’s unofficial churches faith defies persecution

  • Millions of Protestant Christians continue to resist pressure to comply with regulations and join a registered church
  • Local authorities are taking an increasingly aggressive approach
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 January, 2019, 9:03pm
UPDATED : Monday, 07 January, 2019, 2:34pm

Tucked away in a narrow alley off the Dezheng Bei Road in Guangzhou’s Yuexiu district, the Rongguili Church was eerily quiet over Christmas. 

The well-known house church was closed down on December 15 for allegedly breaking China’s religious affairs regulations, and worshippers were told to attend official churches elsewhere in the southern Chinese city.

Rongguili, formerly known as the Damazhan Church, was established in 1950 but forced to shut down in the turbulent years of the Cultural Revolution when all religious activities were deemed “counter-revolutionary”. It was among the first group of Protestant churches to reopen in 1978 when China resumed contact with the outside world.

Its pastor, Samuel Lamb Xiangao, a legendary Protestant Christian leader and one of the leading figures in China’s independent house church movement, spent more than 20 years in prisons and labour camps for refusing to register the Damazhan Church with the authorities.

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Before Lamb died in 2013, the church moved to Rongguili to make way for urban redevelopment. His work continues to inspire the members of the church, like long-term staff member Paul, whose real name has not been disclosed to protect his safety.

“We did not resist, for our struggle is not against flesh and blood. This is a battle against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms,” Paul said, when asked why the Rongguili congregation did not resist the shutdown.

As a student of Lamb’s since 1983, Paul is determined to follow a similar path to his teacher’s to defend his faith.

“Anyone who set up a house church in China must be fully prepared from day one of what is to come,” he said.

“The Bible teaches us that those who live the life of Christ will face persecution.”

Paul is by no means a lone voice among the millions of faithful in China today who would rather see their independently operated churches close than comply with official regulations to register with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and China Christian Council – together known as “lianghui” or “two organisations” – which govern Chinese Protestant churches.

For decades, house church leaders and their followers have cited “irreconcilable differences” with official churches over issues such as biblical teachings, church autonomy, appointment of clergymen, and their history in refusing to register with the authorities.

House church leaders are adamant that their allegiance to Christ is a spiritual matter as they stand firm on the principle of separation of church and state.

“Uncle [Samuel] Lamb taught us that Jesus Christ is the head of our church and we will not exalt anyone higher, or be led by any person or entity besides Jesus Christ,” Paul said.

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The house church leaders are also convinced that registration would mean losing their autonomy over their ministry. They see the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and China Christian Council, colloquially referred to as Three-Self, as political organisations in which they have refused to play any part.

While they refuse to register with Three-Self, house church leaders agree that they should submit to the state and be law-abiding citizens.

“We are patriots but we submit to God before humans. If these two clash, we will gladly take the path of the cross at any costs,” Paul said referring to the biblical teaching of following the footsteps of Christ.

The Three-Self Patriotic Movement, initiated in 1951, promotes the so-called Three-Self Principles, of self-governance, self-support and self propagation. The movement was born as an attempt by the authorities to remove foreign influences from Chinese Protestant churches.

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The China Christian Council was founded in 1980 as an umbrella group responsible for the governance of Protestant churches in accordance with China’s religious policies.

Churches registered with the “Three-Self” are supposed to pledge their loyalty to the Communist Party and are subject to comprehensive controls, such as the sanctioning of worship venues, sermons, appointment of clergy, and supervision over their finances and ministry.

Unregistered house churches first made their appearances as small home gatherings in the early 1980s, when religion gradually made its way back into people’s lives after the Cultural Revolution.

Despite the hardships associated with remaining outside government control, house churches experienced explosive growth in urban China throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

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Official statistics put the number of Protestant Christians in China at more than 38 million last year. However, academics researching religion in the country estimated a Protestant population of between 60 million to 90 million, with more than two-thirds attending unregistered house churches.

Harassment of house churches and their followers has been almost constant over the years but there have been periods when authorities in places like the eastern province of Zhejiang have taken a more tolerant attitude.

However, the intensity of control multiplied about three years ago when President Xi Jinping raised a call to “sinocise” religions, which basically means to “reconstruct theological thinking of churches in China” by assimilating Christianity with traditional Chinese culture and socialist values through officially endorsed churches.

In a recent interview with the South China Morning Post, a missionary with a rural official church in Henan, central China, spoke up about the changes that had “turned local churches upside down”.

“We were asked to put pictures of Xi and Mao Zedong next to the cross of Jesus and Sunday classes are not allowed,” said the missionary, who declined to be named.

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He said local pastors were ordered to raise the Chinese national flag at church buildings, sing the national anthem before worship, and prominently display Communist Party slogans and the portraits of Xi and Mao.

He was also required to memorise core socialist values before passing his annual qualifying tests which are administered by local authorities.

“We are not allowed to go to hospitals to pray for the sick or to baptise converts who are about to die,” the missionary said.

In February last year, the amended Religious Affairs Regulation further tightened the government’s grip and made “unregistered religious activities” virtually impossible. Since then, officials have stepped up their crackdowns and imposed heavy fines on house churches when they have been located and closed down.

The more stringent regulations also empower grass-roots officials to take aggressive control measures in targeting house churches.

As a result, a number of mega-sized house churches have been closed down in the past year, including Rongguili, the 1,500-member Zion Church in Beijing and the Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, capital of southwest China’s Sichuan province.

Christian sources said most massive crackdowns across the country against smaller house churches last year were little known to the outside world. But the situation was at its worst in provinces such as Henan, Anhui, Shandong and Zhejiang, where the local Protestant Christian population is higher than in other areas.

“From what I understood, almost all unregistered churches have been wiped out in Guiyang [the provincial capital of Guizhou in southwestern China] in the past few years,” said Pastor Su Tianfu of the Living Stone Church, which was fined 7 million yuan (US$1 million) when it was shut down three years ago.

In 2014, a massive campaign to remove the crosses from official church buildings in Zhejiang stunned the world.

Despite the hardships, Chinese house church leaders pledged to continue their missionary work and fellowship, refusing to let their faith be shaken by the crackdown.

Instead of gatherings of hundreds at fixed venues, unregistered churches are switching to worship in homes, restaurants, public parks and even shopping malls. They also keep a low-key presence in cyberspace to avoid drawing attention.

“As persecution intensifies, China’s unregistered churches are returning to home gatherings but nothing, not even the Cultural Revolution, could stop us,” Paul said.