Freedom to conform

"Freedom to conform" Continued...

Issue: "Summer Books 2005," July 2, 2005

Another house church in Shanxi Province faced a similar raid on May 13 during a theological training session for 30 of its leaders. Officials arrested the host pastor, Zhang Guangmin, and released him after 15 days but kept another elder until mid-June. Both leaders refused to join the government's Three-Self Patriotic Movement, the official Protestant church.

"Already the Department of National Security and these agencies have started meetings negotiating with house-church groups, encouraging them to register," Mr. Fu said. The officials invite Christians for quiet chats over coffee and offer assurances, such as, "We want to make sure there's no illegal activity-we want to protect you. Be careful of what you write and what you say." But now, groups who refuse the "protection" of the March law stand to be prosecuted under it.

What remains unknown is how China will apply the law across different locales. Prohibitions against unregistered churches have always been enforced region by region, with some provinces enjoying greater freedom than others. In all, an estimated 30 million Protestants and 5 million Catholics are believed members of unofficial house churches.

"The regulations seem to imply much less space for house churches," said Mickey Spiegel, a senior researcher on Asia at Human Rights Watch. Still, they are "very, very loose. They're almost impossible to interpret."

But has a fresh crackdown begun this year? Ms. Spiegel said it is hard to identify a trend among scattered reports of raids and arrests. About the only certainty is that state repression has not eased-"not by any stretch of the imagination." For underground Christians, these early portents are troubling.

Major arrests of Christians

April 2004: 100 Christians in Heilongjiang arrested.

June 2004: 100 members of the 5-million-strong China Gospel Fellowship arrested in Hubei Province. Woman in Guizhou tortured to death in police custody after distributing Bibles.

July 2004: 100 Christians arrested in Xinjiang Province.

August 2004: 100 arrested in Henan Province. Some 18 pastors remained in custody as of May 2005.

September 2004: Beijing pastor Cai Zhuohua arrested. Still awaits trial. Eight Catholic priests and two seminarians arrested in Hebei.

April 2005: A bishop and two priests arrested.

May 2005: 600 house-church Christians in Jilin arrested in a raid on about 100 churches. Near the end of June, about 100 remained in custody.

Sources: China Aid Association, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom


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