China shuts leading underground Christian church, third this winter
- More than 60 police and government officials interrupt children’s Bible class in Saturday morning raid
- Church founded by late leader of underground worship movement, Samuel Lamb Xiangao, is latest to be closed
More than 60 police officers and officials stormed a children’s Bible class in southern China on Saturday morning, in a raid on an underground church founded in 1978 by a leading light in the country’s house church movement.
According to Christian sources, the Rongguili Church in Guangzhou, widely known as the beacon of faith in southern China, was raided about 10am, making it the third prominent Protestant unregistered church to be shut down by Chinese authorities this winter.
The officials, who included representatives from the education and religious affairs departments, were said to have stayed until 8pm and confiscated church property, including more than 4,000 books.
Entry and exit points for the roads leading to the church, which is tucked in a narrow lane in Guangzhou’s Yuexiu district, have been cordoned off by police.
The church, which attracts thousands of worshippers every week, was founded by the late pastor Samuel Lamb Xiangao, one of the leading figures of China’s independent house church movement over the past four decades.
Its closure comes after Chinese authorities shut down the prominent 1,500-member Zion Church in Beijing in September and Chengdu’s 500-member Early Rain Covenant Church last week.
According to a notice issued on Saturday by the Yuexiu district ethnic and religious affairs bureau, all activities at the Rongguili Church have been suspended by local authorities for violating the Religious Affairs Regulation.
The notice that was circulated on social media told worshippers to attend gatherings in 15 other registered Protestant churches in Guangzhou.
“Halfway through the children’s Bible class, we heard the footsteps of dozens of police and officials stomping up the stairs,” according to a post by a Rongguili church member.
“They read out law enforcement notices declaring our venue was an illegal gathering [that had engaged in] illegal publishing and illegal fundraising and confiscated all Bibles.”
The personal identities of worshippers, including children, were recorded. Their phones were ordered to be switched off and handed over.
“They then verified our identities again and warned us not to return [to the church] before letting us go,” the person said.
The only person taken away was a parent who attempted to photograph the scene, according to a church member who did not wish to be identified.
Rongguili Church, which attracts up to 5,000 worshippers a week, was founded in 2000 to replace Damazhan Church, which was razed during urban construction. The latter was also founded by Lamb in 1978 after he was released from a labour camp.
“Samuel Lamb’s house church, after his release from prison in the late 1970s, was the leading and largest unregistered church in the south, just as Allen Yuen Xiangchen’s was in the north and in the capital of Beijing,” said Hong Kong-based missionary John Short, who was a friend of Lamb’s.
“These two men, along with Moses Xi in Shanghai, led the post-Mao era of Christian revival in today’s China,” he said.
Lamb spent more than 20 years behind bars, including 13 years of hard labour in dangerous coal mines, for defending his faith and resisting the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, a governing body overseeing official Protestant churches approved by the government.
On his release, his churches were largely left in peace to preach the gospel. The spiritual giant died at the age of 88 in Guangzhou in 2013 and more than 30,000 people paid tribute to him at his funeral.
“Lamb's funeral was the largest in China among all Protestant notables and a cause of great agitation [at the loss of] such a beloved and respected martyr,” Short said.
In Chengdu, where the Early Rain Covenant Church was raided last week, worshippers persisted with outdoor gatherings on Sunday morning.
Early Rain Pastor Wang Yi and his wife Jiang Rong have been accused of inciting subversion of state power. At least 10 key members of the church remain detained.
The raids on independent churches are part of a broader crackdown of unregistered churches that Beijing has escalated this year, with observers saying it is the worst they have seen in the past three decades.
The campaign has been bolstered by amendments to the Religious Affairs Regulation that gives grass roots officials more power to act against churches and impose tougher penalties for “unauthorised religious gatherings”.
House churches in Henan, Zhejiang and Anhui provinces have experienced some of the worst crackdowns. According to Bob Fu of China Aid, a US-based Christian non-profit organisation, more than 10,000 cases of Christians being detained have been documented so far this year, compared with just over 3,000 cases for the whole of last year.