Eric Pilson is not entirely sure what provoked the police raid on his friend's house in Hubei province, China. The number of people slowly gathering at the home-42 Chinese in total-may have aroused suspicion.
Whatever the reason, Americans Mr. Pilson and Daniel Cohee found themselves snatched up in a raid on the underground South China Church on Aug. 2. While they were reading their Bibles after breakfast on the second floor, plainclothes officers barged in. The officers shoved and yanked the two seminarians toward the door, at first not even allowing Mr. Pilson to slip on his shoes, while rounding up the rest of the household.
The two Americans could not understand the officers, stumbling through a Chinese phrasebook and flagging onlookers congregating outside the house for anyone who spoke English. "I couldn't tell who was a family member, who was a neighbor, and who was police," Mr. Pilson said. "It was very unorganized, kind of chaotic." The officers drove them to a plain government building-not a police station-for a seven-hour interrogation.
Messrs. Pilson and Cohee fit a new trend: increasing arrests of Americans caught with Chinese Christians. On Aug. 15, just 13 days after authorities arrested the seminarians in Hubei, officers in Henan province arrested five more Americans. According to the Texas-based China Aid Association, four were at a house-church gathering, while the fifth was simply walking a street in Yichuan City with a Chinese pastor when two plainclothes officers trailed and nabbed them. Days later, no information on their names or where authorities were detaining them was available. In late February, authorities deported eight Americans caught teaching church leaders in Heilongjiang province.
For more than a year China has been scaling up its crackdowns on underground churches. Part of the motivation comes from Communist Party missives to stamp out "evil cults." But a new law on religious practice also took effect in March, which is squeezing house churches to register officially with the state or face stern legal reprisals. Arrests of Americans, however, are unusual.
"There is an anti--'evil cult' campaign," explained China Aid President Bob Fu. "This time they're specifically targeting churches. The campaign also seems to be aimed at ending foreign infiltration forces." That makes Americans prime targets, and in the thinking of Chinese officials, there is a "U.S.-led Western conspiracy to Westernize and divide China," Mr. Fu said. "That's their feeling and policy."
China Aid recently obtained secret documents issued by Shayang City in Hubei province and Datong City, Shanxi province in January instructing officials on how to handle "cults." The directions describe religious cults, which are vaguely defined, as akin to mafia-like groups and as anti-science and anti-society.
Officers questioned Messrs. Pilson and Cohee: Why did they have Bibles? What were they doing in a non-tourist area? The two asked in return to call the U.S. embassy, and to know why they were being held. Officers gave them no response. Only one senior officer bothered to show them his police identification.
"We asked them if they'd ever arrested a foreigner, and they said no," said Mr. Pilson. "We asked them if they'd ever seen a foreigner-they said no . . . it seemed like they didn't know what to do because we were Americans."
If gruff, local authorities are careful not to mistreat U.S. Christians. They do not extend the same courtesy to local Chinese. Hubei authorities tortured many of the 42 they detained, members of the downtrodden South China Church.
"Almost primarily just the nationals are treated most poorly, just because Americans are high-profile," Mr. Pilson said. "Chinese are weaker. They can do what they want to them and no one really cares."
By Aug. 13, authorities had released all but two of the Hubei Christians-10 days earlier than expected. The surprise leniency was likely connected to the first visit to China of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent, federally appointed agency that reports to the State Department. Commission delegations have toured countries controlled by religious-freedom violators, such as Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia, but had to cancel a 2003 China trip when the government blocked their stopover in Hong Kong and fudged on allowing meetings with religious leaders. This first tour is scheduled to run Aug. 14-28.
The early release was also a desperately needed reprieve for Chinese Christians. Officers forced one woman to stand with her arms outstretched, and burned her with a cigarette when she fell over. A 15-year-old girl was punched so savagely on the side of her face that her eyes swelled. Officials pulled down the pants of another woman, made her kneel, and thrashed her buttocks with bamboo sticks until she bled.
The two women still in custody mid-August were the hostess, 60-year-old Ren Daoyun, and 38-year-old Gu Junqing. Eyewitnesses said Ms. Ren has endured multiple beatings and passed out several times in detention. Authorities transferred Ms. Gu to a detention center in her hometown in Henan province.
The South China Church is the most severely persecuted house church in the country, said Mr. Fu. The main reason, he said, is the churches' "strong emphasis on evangelism and cultural renewal, and of course a very strong leadership."
In 2001, authorities arrested founding pastor Gong Shengliang. They initially handed death sentences to him and four other church leaders, but later commuted them. Mr. Gong is now serving a life sentence and reportedly suffers physical abuse in prison. Four female church members served three years in re-education camps for recanting forced statements saying Mr. Gong had raped them.
One of the women, 34-year-old Liu Xianzhi, spent six years altogether in a camp, her first stint ordered for illegally evangelizing. She made rugs and Christmas lights before her release in February 2004. A year later, she escaped to the United States and spoke tearfully at a Washington press conference about the torture used against her to extract a confession against Mr. Gong. Officers beat her with an electrical rod, hung her by her hair until she lost consciousness, and tore her clothes off.
After having its leadership gutted, however, the South China Church has recovered: "I was told all the major activities in terms of the church are back to normal," Mr. Fu said.
Mr. Pilson's arrest came on his first trip to China. A Washington, D.C., native, he is a student at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, Calif. Mr. Cohee studies at Westminster Theological Seminary in Dallas. If their visit turned sour, they did receive an assurance when finally released. The Hubei police apologized and told them, "You can come back and we'll welcome you."
July 2004 to August 2005
•Hebei province April 2005: A Roman Catholic bishop and two priests arrested for refusing to register with the Patriotic Catholic Church.
•Heilongjiang province February 2005: Eight Americans arrested and deported after attending house-church gathering; authorities also detained 140 Chinese church leaders.
•Henan province August 2004: 100 arrested. June 2005: 100 pastors arrested. By August, further 30-40 Christians also arrested, and five Americans.
•Hubei province August 2005: 42 Chinese and two American seminarians arrested. Americans released after seven-hour interrogation; several Chinese tortured while in custody.
•Jilin province May 2005: 600 house-church Christians in Jilin arrested in a raid on about 100 churches.
•Jiangxi province August 2005: About 30 Christians arrested.
•Xinjiang province July 2004: 100 Christians arrested. August 2005: Between 30 and 40 Christians arrested.