Leaders in China's underground church movement issued surprising communiqués to Western journalists that signal a new level of frustration with government authorities. They also reveal a determination to communicate with the free world and renewed boldness to worship God and organize their churches unfettered.
In a meeting late last month with Christian journalists Mark O'Keefe and David Aikman, church leaders in Zhengzhou delivered a seven-point petition highlighting their mistreatment at the hands of the government and asking for reforms. The document, both reporters told WORLD, marks the first time China's Protestant house-church leaders have gathered publicly to state their grievances.
The peasant farmer who led the gathering, Zhang Rongliang, told the U.S.-based journalists, "We have been persecuted so long, we just have to fight the last fight. We can't keep silent anymore."
Mr. Zhang is the head of Fengcheng Fellowship, a house-church movement he said has grown from 10,000 believers 20 years ago to over 10 million, mostly in Henan province. Mr. Zhang told the reporters he had been jailed three times, mostly recently in 1994, on charges of "holding unauthorized religious meetings with foreigners."
A dozen others joined Mr. Zhang in an upper room of a two-story house. All had been imprisoned at one time or another for their house-church activities. Mr. Zhang wore shorts with a cell phone attached, according to a report filed by Mr. O'Keefe for his newspaper, The [Portland] Oregonian. All but one of the group were peasants with elementary-school educations, according to Mr. O'Keefe, who said the petition "is not a carefully worded diplomatic communiqué."
The document, handwritten in Chinese but circulated in the United States without the names of the church leaders, asked Chinese authorities "to release unconditionally all house-church Christians presently serving in labor reform camps."
It calls on the communist regime "to admit to God's great power" and asks for "a dialogue" between house churches and the government, aimed at gaining recognition for the now illegal churches.
The document requested a refined definition of "cult" to prevent authorities from making arrests on grounds that house-church Christians are cult leaders. Peter Xu Youngze, a prominent house-church leader, was arrested on those grounds last year and is now serving time in a labor camp.
"We want direct pressure," Mr. Zhang told the journalists, "even if the persecution gets worse in the short term. We want the outside world to know what's happening to us and that we're holding on to our faith."
Together, the leaders told the reporters, they represent 15 million house-church members. They said there are 80 million house-church members in all of China. That figure is double the largest numbers heretofore attributed to the house-church movement by Christian human-rights experts and mission organizations.
"Some kind of threshold has been crossed," said Nina Shea of Freedom House. "They can no longer sit by silently while they see revisionist history spread-both from their own government and groups like the National Council of Churches. It has become too much for them to take." The National Council of Churches invited Han Wen Zao, president of the government-sponsored China Christian Council, to a gathering last April, the "Voices for Religious Freedom Project." The NCC did not invite house-church leaders, who are plainly advocating religious freedom.
In a separate incident, a senior staff member at one of China's leading seminaries openly criticized China's state-registered churches and their governing agencies, the China Christian Council and the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM). The pastor and teacher, who did not give permission to use his name for publication, nonetheless spoke publicly at a prayer meeting last July and rebuked his counterparts in TSPM, according to Compass Direct.
"With changes in party policy, the Chinese government has openly rehabilitated those falsely accused of crimes during the various political movements of the past. Some have even received apologies and compensation. But the huge number of church workers and leaders who were persecuted in those days in the name of the TSPM have never received any apology or compensation from today's TSPM committees. Those of you in the TSPM who decide on [church] policy have never taken the slightest degree of responsibility. You only know how to enjoy power," he said.
The pastor also attacked government propaganda on the history of missions in China. Revisionists paint early missionary efforts as a cover for Western imperialism. That excuses their persecution during the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the century and during various socialist education campaigns prior to the Cultural Revolution.
Many missionaries to China were "like lambs among wolves," he said. "On the other hand were gangsters and terrorists delighting in bloodshed. What is so unthinkable is that for a very long time now some people have praised these rioters and terrorists as heroes of the people."
Journalist Paul Davenport, who attended the prayer meeting, said the pastor "directly attacks the official view of church history still promulgated by the government and the present Three Self Patriotic Movement in China, a view which sadly is often accepted overseas by Western Christians ignorant of Chinese history."
Even with the breakthrough, some Christian leaders appear to be maintaining their support for China's official church agencies. Ned Graham, president of East Gates Ministries in Arlington, Wash., and the son of Billy Graham, told Mark O'Keefe the petition from house-church leaders "reveals a great level of political naiveté."
Mr. Graham, whose organization distributes Bible literature in China, said, "If anything, it will simply increase the level of scrutiny placed upon the house churches. It's very unfortunate, a rather blunt instrument that does not foster dialogue." Mr. Graham said he believes the house-church leaders represent a very small minority of Christians in China.
When Christian Broadcasting Network President Pat Robertson visited China last month, he confined his contacts to official circles and did not raise the subject of persecution. The trip was front-page news in China Daily, an English-language paper. Mr. Robertson was quoted praising freedom of religion in China and saying he believes China's government respects religious freedom.
In a meeting with Chinese Premier Zhu Rongju, Mr. Robertson told Mr. Zhu he had nothing to fear from Christianity: "I urged the thought that Christianity in particular, and other religious values, are in no way a threat to the government of China, but actually, these would be bulwarks against a materialism which could sap the vitality of this great nation." Mr. Robertson told a 700 Club audience upon his return that "I believe that message got through."
But Mr. Robertson has also admitted that his television network's U.S. Media Corporation was creating programs with government-run China Central Television and has sold children's programming to Chinese stations. In reaction to the Robertson trip, Compass Direct quoted, but would not name, one house-church leader who was critical.
Chinese authorities asked Mr. Robertson not to visit the underground churches, according to Robertson spokeswoman Patty Silverman. "Mr. Robertson was invited as a guest to China and he believes more progress is to be made by building bridges than by being confrontational," she said.
The house-church leader suggested the bridge-building approach leaves Mr. Robertson "so open [to] being a propaganda tool. He should have stood up more publicly for the persecuted millions."