Evangelists arrested as China targets church

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The Independent Online

Chinese police arrested 130 followers of a banned evangelical church yesterday, including three United States missionaries, according to a human-rights watchdog.

Chinese police arrested 130 followers of a banned evangelical church yesterday, including three United States missionaries, according to a human-rights watchdog.

The arrests occurred on the same day that China's leading Catholic official, on a visit to the US, heralded a "golden age" for religion in his country and a dramatic growth in the number of believers.

As more Chinese attempt to fill the spiritual void left by the retreat from Maoism to materialism, the problem for Peking is that they are choosing the "wrong" kind of belief - religious groups that lie outside state control.

Like the outlawed Falun Gong movement, the Fang Cheng church targeted this week is one of more than a dozen groups to be denounced as "evil cults" over the past year by a Communist Party fearful of the popularity of alternative mass organisations.

The Hong Kong-based Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy reported yesterday that the arrests occurred in Xihua county in central Henan province.

The Fang Cheng church, which claims up to 500,000 followers, is named after another Henan county where the church's founder, Zhang Rongliang, first preached. In December, Zhang was sentenced to two years in a "re-education" labour camp for "leading a cult".

Fang Cheng is called the "Jerusalem of China" by some Christians for its role in the house church movement that began in the Eighties. Millions of people prefer the underground church - clandestine meetings in private homes - to the state-run religious organisations where the first loyalty is to the Communist Party. In recent years, authorities have pursued a campaign of persecution against the Christian underground through constant surveillance and frequent detentions.

Pastor Allan Yuan, a veteran of the underground church in Peking, was not surprised to learn of the crackdown. Some reports suggest that 40 per cent of labour camp inmates in Henan are held for underground church activities. "Arrests are very common, probably when they gathered together. I will pray for them," Mr Yuan said.

The 86-year-old has spent 21 years behind bars for his faith. "The government is atheist, so of course they persecute those with beliefs. But Christianity has always thrived in the face of persecution. The underground church movement is growing very, very fast," he said.

Some estimates suggest that followers of the underground Protestant church movement outnumber the 10 million believers of the official church by ten to one. House church evangelists are said to wander throughout China preaching the Gospel and attracting people to join groups with names such as Road of Life, Little Flock, Born Again and the Shouters Sect. Peking claims some four million Chinese belong to the Catholic Patriotic Association, while the Vatican asserts that there are as many as eight million underground Catholics loyal to Rome.

The crackdown against the Fang Cheng church comes as the leaders of the country's approved religions are visiting the US to attend the United Nation's Millennium World Peace Summit of religious and spiritual leaders.

Michael Fu Tieshan, Bishop of the Chinese Catholic Church, admitted in Los Angeles on Wednesday that the explosion of interest in religion "poses a major challenge for us when the educational backgrounds of the followers are considered. A considerable number of the religious believers are women, seniors and ill-educated people, who hardly have any chance to distinguish religion from heretic teachings".

Accompanying the delegation is the head of China's religious affairs bureau, who on Wednesday boasted of success in eliminating the remnants of Peking's pet heresy, the Falun Gong. Ye Xiaowen stated that by 15 August, Chinese courts had convicted 151 "hard-core Falun Gong practitioners" of crimes such as instigating "social chaos" and the catch-all category "leaking state secrets".

* Fending off criticism over the exclusion of the Dalai Lama from a conference of religious leaders due to Chinese pressure, the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, said yesterday the UN headquarters was "a house for the member states, and their sensitivities matter".

Mr Annan was replying to a question about the exclusion of Tibet's exiled Buddhist leader from the World Peace Summit of Religious Leaders.