Chinese pastor and wife face 15 years in prison as crackdown on religious groups intensifies

The 45-year old was detained last week with more than 100 members of his congregation

Ian Johnson
Friday 14 December 2018 13:42 GMT
China demolishes mosque, prompting rare protest against government

An outspoken Chinese pastor and his wife face up to 15 years in prison after being charged with inciting to subvert state power, a sign that Chinese authorities are intensifying a crackdown on religious groups, one of the most serious in recent decades.

Wang Yi, 45, who runs the independent Early Rain Covenant Church in the southwestern city of Chengdu, was detained last weekend along with more than 100 members of his congregation.

As of Thursday, most of the group’s main leaders were still in custody and police had sealed off the church, which occupies the floor of an office building.

The move against the church comes as the authorities have gradually constricted religious rights and sought to eliminate independent places of worship.

As it has promulgated new rules in recent years, the government has stepped up a campaign against Christianity and Islam, two religions it sees as problematic for their foreign ties, social activism and, especially in the case of Christianity, underground centres of worship.

In recent months, authorities have detained hundreds of thousands of Muslims, banned online sales of the Bible and demolished an evangelical church.

On Wednesday, the church issued a bulletin saying its leaders would face criminal charges, including illegally operating a business and illegally publishing material. Earlier, authorities also said the church had violated China’s rules on places of worship, which it must follow to register with the government.

Pictures on social media appeared to show signs of physical abuse on some church members, with some showing bruises, abrasions and their hair pulled out.

But the charge against Mr Wang and his wife, Jiang Rong, was far more severe than what other leaders face: “inciting subversion of state power,” a catchall charge often used against dissidents and political activists who speak out against the government.

According to Chinese law, the maximum sentence is 15 years, although most sentences are under 10 years.

A photo of Jiang’s detention warrant confirming this charge was circulated Thursday on social media.

“We’ve had crackdowns before but not on this scale or with this brutality,” said Fredrik Fällman, a professor at the University of Gothenburg, in Sweden, who studies Chinese Christianity. “They want to show they’re in control and you can’t do what you like.”

In its crackdown on Islam, the government has adopted increasingly draconian policies of forcing halal restaurants to serve pork and alcohol, banning some Muslims from fasting during Ramadan, and building internment camps for hundreds of ethnic Uighur Muslims who refuse to adopt a secularized form of their religion.

It has all but locked down the largely Muslim province of Xinjiang, most recently detaining a famous Chinese photographer who ventured there.

The government seems to be handling Christianity in two different ways.

It has pursued diplomacy towards Roman Catholics, forging a deal with the Vatican that would have Rome recognise government-appointed bishops in exchange for the Vatican gaining some say in how they are appointed.

This, in theory, would bind all Catholics to the government-run church and make underground churches unnecessary.

Protestantism, which lacks a centralized structure, has had several important churches closed or destroyed, apparently as a warning.

These include a large unregistered church in Beijing, the Zion church, which was closed in September, and whose leader was placed under house arrest.

The crackdown in Chengdu appears to be of another magnitude, partially because Mr Wang is so outspoken and nationally famous.

Before converting to Christianity in 2005, he was named one of the 50 most prominent public intellectuals in China.

In 2008, Mr Wang founded Early Rain, and his sermons were often extremely topical, touching on what he saw as rampant materialism in Chinese society and the political compromises made by the government-run church.

He also opposed the common use of abortion in China, a practice pushed by the government as it sought to control the country’s population. And he staunchly opposed female pastors, expelling one couple from his church because the wife had studied theology and wanted to preach.

His statements on these topics landed Mr Wang in and out of custody, and he was forbidden from travelling abroad on several occasions.

But he also advocated radical transparency, making his sermons available online and giving police names of people who attended Early Rain — an effort, he said, to avoid acting as if the church had something to hide.

After the new religious regulations were promulgated last year, however, Mr Wang’s criticism of the government became increasingly strident.

Earlier this year, when China’s Parliament put President Xi Jinping’s name in the Constitution and lifted term limits on his office, allowing him to serve beyond his current term, Mr Wang was scathing.

“Abolishing the term limit on the leader of state does not make a leader but a usurper,” he wrote. “Writing a living person’s name into the Constitution is not amending the Constitution but destroying it.”

Most recently, he waded into even more sensitive issues, such as the unrest in minority parts of the country.

In one sermon, he said that the government was waging war on “the soul of man” in Xinjiang, Tibet and Chinese parts of the country, but that it would fail because people would ask themselves: “In the middle of their pitiful and wretched lives, ruled by despotism, and money and power, where is your honour? Where is your dignity? Where is your freedom?”

Seemingly sensing that he could be detained at any time, Mr Wang months ago wrote a declaration to be published 48 hours after his detention.

In it, he said he was “filled with anger and disgust at the persecution of the church by the Communist regime.”

It was not his role to overthrow the government, he said, though he predicted one day its rule would end.

“There is only eternal faith,” he wrote. “There is no eternal power.”

Church members said they would continue to meet, adapting a tactic they used during a past crackdown.

In 2011, the church worshipped outdoors along the banks of the Jinjiang River in Chengdu, after police would not allow them to take possession of the building floor they had purchased and wanted to convert into a church. After several weeks, authorities relented.

With Christmas coming, congregants, speaking anonymously for fear of reprisal, said they would meet again outside and try to make the government change its mind.

The New York Times

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