Early Rain church members attend first service after China crackdown
- Christian family joins congregation in Taiwan amid uncertainty for the future
- Pastor Wang Yi remains detained in China
Seven months after authorities shut down his church on the Chinese mainland, Liao Qiang was able to worship publicly for the first time on Sunday when he joined the congregation at an unassuming church on the self-ruled island of Taiwan.
The 49-year-old arrived in Taiwan last week after fleeing the mainland with five family members. He and his 23-year-old daughter, Ren Ruiting, described living under constant surveillance for the past seven months after authorities detained them and dozens of other members of their prominent, but not government-sanctioned, church in December.
Beijing has carried out a widespread crackdown on all religious institutions in recent years, including bulldozing churches and mosques, barring Tibetan children from Buddhist religious studies and allegedly incarcerating more than a million members of Islamic ethnic minorities in what are termed “re-education centres.”
Chinese President and Communist Party leader Xi Jinping has ordered that all religions must “Sinicise” to rid them of foreign influences.
In contrast, Taiwan has long taken a hands-off approach to religion, making it a place where Christianity and other religions thrive.
Liao and Ren’s accounts are the first to detail what has happened since the detentions began at the Early Rain Covenant Church in December last year. They show the determination of the Chinese government – and the lengths it has gone – to eradicate a congregation that has long been a thorn in its side.
Early Rain’s pastor Wang Yi, who remains detained, has been critical of Xi and the party and has made a point of holding a prayer service on June 4 each year to commemorate the 1989 bloody crackdown on democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, an anniversary that China’s government has sought to wipe from memory.
Ren said she had to report her whereabouts to police using social media whenever she went out and was told her safety could not be guaranteed if she disobeyed.
“That’s when I knew it was no longer safe for us here, and that my children were most in danger,” Liao said after Sunday’s service, attended by about 30 people, at the small Reformed Presbyterian Xinan Church in Taipei.
Government officials in mainland China did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
More than 100 members of Early Rain were taken into custody from the church or their homes on December 9 and 10, according to Human Rights Watch. Those detained included Wang, the pastor. His wife, Jiang Rong, was released on bail last month.
Liao said the police tried to force him to sign a statement renouncing his church, but he refused.
“If our elders decided to break up the church, then I can accept it,” he said. “But it’s not up to you to say it’s evil or illegal.”
Liao and his family hope to stay in Taiwan while they seek asylum in the United States, but with a 15-day tourist visa, their future is unclear.
“I’m not sure whether they can stay beyond the visa, unless the Taiwanese government is willing to make it a humanitarian case on the basis of religious persecution,” said Chiu Ling-yao, secretary general of the Taiwan Association for China Human Rights, which is trying to help the family find a solution.
The spokeswoman for the American Institute in Taiwan – the de facto US embassy – could not be reached for comment.
Ren hopes that one day she can return to her home.
“One day when China opens up, we’ll go back,” she said. “Whether it’s five years, or even 10 years, we’ll eventually make our way back to where God wants us to serve.”