CSW is pleased to highlight an exclusive piece of research into the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on unregistered Protestant ‘house’ churches in China. The research, undertaken by an experienced researcher in May and June 2020, looks at three key cases: a police raid on Xingguang Church in Xiamen; an Easter crackdown on members of Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu; and a church-led effort to support hospitals and communities in Wuhan affected by the virus – an effort which was thwarted by the authorities.
This briefing contains extracts and analysis from the report, the full version of which can be found at: csw.org.uk/2020-chinacovid-report
The research looks at these three cases in the context of the increasing oppression of unregistered churches by the government:
‘From January 2020 to the present, China and the entire world have been plagued by a once-in-a-century plague that started in Wuhan and spread to the rest of the world…China’s urban house churches, which had been persecuted by the government in the past, thought they could breathe a sigh of relief during this period. However, the plague did not reduce the Chinese government’s strict control over them. Even during the most severe period of the epidemic, demolition of crosses and the banning of the churches in various places never stopped.’
While the paper focuses specifically on unregistered Protestant ‘house’ churches, CSW’s research finds that this fits into a broader context of a rapid and significant decline in religious freedom across the nation, impacting all major religious communities, including both registered and unregistered Protestant and Catholic churches.
As the researcher asserts: ‘Although the PRC Constitution clearly stipulates that citizens have freedom of religious belief, this freedom has been repeatedly undermined by various regulations of the government’s administrative departments.’
The researcher also finds that violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief against churches in China are increasing now that coronavirus restrictions are being lifted: ‘As the epidemic eases, the intensity and scope of the persecution is expanding.’
Case study from Xiamen: Xingguang
Xingguang Church is an unregistered church in Xiamen, Fujian Province. The church meets in privately owned rooms belonging to church members. The same space is used for the church school. Police and authorities have raided the church twice this year. The researcher here describes the first incident.
‘On Sunday, May 3, the epidemic in Xiamen had been stable for several days, some commercial and consumer establishments were opening, schools had resumed classes, and people began to gather at churches. People seemed to be gradually recovering their past freedom. However, Xiamen Xingguang Church experienced darkness on this day.
‘In the morning, dozens of Christians living on the same floor as the Xingguang Church came to a room one after another; this room is where they worship. These people, more than a dozen, included elderly, middle-aged, and children. They began singing hymns amid the sounds of the piano. The Sunday worship had not yet begun, when the gate was suddenly surrounded by more than 200 police, urban management officers, and staff of the Bureau of Religious Affairs. They tore down the Xiamen Bureau of Religious Affairs’ notice of the ban on the ‘Xingguang Church’ and tried to enter the church forcibly to carry out a raid. Church pastors and able-bodied Christians stood at the door to intercept them. They argued on strong grounds, warning the officials not to charge into private homes.
‘The police finally broke in. Christians blocking the door were forcibly dragged out and beaten on the ground. Their cell phones were forcibly taken. Female Christians and school teachers were also treated violently. The police tore apart window frames and door locks and entered a Christian home, taking away a family of three. Even the neighbor who photographed this scene with his mobile phone was berated and threatened by police who climbed up the railing; the scene was very chaotic.
‘The wife of the pastor of the church, Sister Xiaofei, and some adherents took some videos before their phones were snatched. From the videos, we can see the violence of the police, hear the shrieks of Christians, the cry of children, and the angry questions of the pastor’s wife, Sister Xiaofei: “Why did you burst into our home? Why did you take our mobile phones? Why did you hit people?” The police’s violent law enforcement led to Brother Xu Wenping suffering chest and forearm contusions, and broken ribs, and other brothers and sisters were also injured to varying degrees.’
The researcher believes the reason for the crackdown on the church has nothing to do with the coronavirus: ‘At that time, the virus in Xiamen City had been substantially alleviated, and public health and safety measures restricting the gathering of citizens had been lifted. A dozen or so Christians worshipping God at home did not violate public health regulations.’
Instead: ‘The reason why the Xingguang Church was suppressed was that they persisted in their right to believe granted to Christians by the Constitution, refused to join the Three-Self Church, and refused to register with the Religious Affairs Bureau viewing this as contrary to their principles of faith. Because of this, the church has been subjected to numerous joint law enforcement actions by the police, urban management officers, and the fire department…The police raided the Church on May 3rd, purportedly for “illegal assembly”. Ironically, this day, May 3rd, is World Press Freedom Day, yet this church experienced instead the reality that freedom of belief is ruthlessly suppressed.’ On that day, six church members were taken to the Xinglin Police Station; they were released at 9pm that night.
According to the researcher’s analysis, the measures taken by the authorities against this particular church have occurred in the context of a wider crackdown on unregistered churches in Fujian Province:
‘Fujian was one of the earliest areas where Protestantism first entered China, and Xiamen’s Gulangyu Island was a gathering place for early missionaries…However, ever since the Chinese government launched a thorough nationwide crackdown on house churches that refused to join the Three-Self Church, the Fujian Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee said it would remove all house church gathering places within its jurisdiction within two years. In the second half of last year, many house churches in Fujian were banned…In late April , the government of Xiapu county in Fujian’s Ningde prefecture, destroyed 176 Christian graves. Even during the period when the epidemic was severe, the government did not relax the monitoring of Christians.’
Another church in Xiamen, No. 5 Xunsiding Church, was closely monitored by government security personnel throughout the pandemic. The church has been under tight surveillance since it was banned in May 2019. The following month police physically blocked people from entering the church space.